More than half a century after its partial release, it’s difficult to prise Charlie Bubbles apart from the cultural resonances that have aggregated limpet-like to its slender framework over the intervening decades.
In particular, it’s a film that has been pillaged avariciously by fervent admirer Morrissey so that – from a certain perspective – all it lacks is a scene set outside Salford Lads’ Club to serve as a cinematic miniature of a Smiths’ heritage tour.
Pendleton-raised Albert Finney, the film’s lead and director, frequented that self-same establishment as a youth, however, and the words that trip from his taciturn lips are unmistakably penned by a fellow Salford émigré, Shelagh Delaney, whose Taste Of Honey was in turn dipped into by the light-fingered Smiths’ lyricist. Although Finney declined the honour of pop beatification through appearing on a Smiths’ picture sleeve, two of his co-stars here, Billie Whitelaw and the aptly-singular Yootha Joyce, were both canonised in this way. None of which, of course, could have been the intentions of Finney and Delaney as both the 1960s, and the London to which they had decamped, began to swing to a halt.
Each had come to prominence when the vogue for the kitchen sink had nudged the stage door ajar to the flat-vowelled sons and daughters of the terraces and council estates, and each – perhaps – had heard it shut behind them again, leaving them neither one thing nor the other; too metropolitan to slot back into Ordsall, too unpretentious to take London at its own word.
It’s an itch that Delaney’s dialogue digs away at, most succinctly when a hotel porter asks Finney’s titular Charlie, “do you just do your writing now, or are you still working?” – the superficial pleasantry of the enquiry a double-edged blade cutting its recipient back down to size, just as it reveals the wielder’s mistrust of art over graft.
If Delaney’s dialogue is characteristically naturalistic, the somewhat episodic narrative is less so. While Bubbles’ route is straightforward enough; taking him from the South to the North – via Newport Pagnell, no less – the scenes along the way, while uneven in tone, are often off-kilter. The opening coincidence of Bubbles encountering his chum Smokey in what appears to be a private members’ club, for instance, culminates in a deadpan food duel that’s Bunuelian in all but accent.
The quotidian surrealism that dislocates the bones of the plot jars more disruptively through Finney’s assured direction. It’s hard to place one’s finger on what’s precisely so unsettling about a second synchronicity in the shape of an encounter with Joyce’s wonderfully-played sphinx without a secret at an otherwise deserted service station, but she – and her disquieting familial entourage – hum with an uncanny charge akin to David Lynch’s own roadside wayfarers.
While Joyce is especially excellent, the entire ensemble (among them a pre-Alf Roberts Brian Mosley and a pre-Cabaret Liza Minelli) are note-perfect. All the same, while taken individually, each vignette has its own satisfactions, Charlie Bubbles seems as disjointed as its anhedonic hero. In the end, it’s all too easy for the viewer’s tenuous sympathies for his moneyed anomie to slip loose of their moorings, so that the film’s climax – while apt – leaves the viewer as unmoved as the benumbed Charlie.
Even so, 50 years after its bubble burst, its pop still resounds.