NO LOVE FOR JOHNNIE (Ralph Thomas, 1961)

In a phenomenal performance that brought him best actor prizes at Berlin and from the British Academy, Peter Finch plays 42-year-old Johnnie Byrne, a just-reëlected Labour Party member of Parliament the reason for whose exclusion from his prime minister’s Labour Government takes time in coming to light. When he is finally told, it seems as though the explanation should have been obvious from the start—one of the few head-scratchers in an otherwise absolutely brilliant script. Mordecai Richler and Nicholas Phipps adapted the 1958 novel by former MP Wilfred Fienburgh. There isn’t a political moment in this film that fails to either absorb the viewer’s interest or convince. One isn’t left to wonder why the New York Daily News named No Love for Johnnie one of 1961’s ten best films.

There are two dovetailing main strands to the narrative, one political, the other romantic. Byrne considers publicly opposing his  prime minister regarding a rumored intention of foreign adventurism, on the grounds that the outcome might betray Labour principles; in this, the film’s most remarkable aspect, we “see” something of the mental process by which Byrne, who is ambitious in his career, convinces himself (and perhaps us) he is proceeding on the basis of principle. It is a nebulous and gray area in a black-and-white film which, keyed also to London weather, appropriately favors light gray tonalities.

Once his wife walks out on him, Byrne advances on a neighbor (played by a younger, more vulnerable Billie Whitelaw than we are used to seeing) and then a lovely model half his age, with whom he has a passionate affair and seems genuinely to fall in love. But each in turn is sacrificed to his career ambition, for the sake of which he plans on reconciling with his estranged wife—that is, until a blow of irony makes her, too, an impediment to his ambition. The title of the film is ironic; Byrne may bemoan that there’s “no love for Johnnie,” but it is Johnnie, himself, who ruins or chucks every opportunity for love in his life.

There is a sex scene between Byrne and Pauline West, the young model, that is wildly unconvincing owing to its satin-smooth body movements and camera movements which take into account none of the gap in the pair’s ages and contrasting levels of experience. One, especially today, cringes at the hokiness.

Ralph Thomas directed—the same Ralph Thomas responsible for those Doctor comedies in the fifties starring Dirk Bogarde.

 

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