Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1968) ***

So, John Wayne, what first attracted you to working with British director Douglas Hickox for tough cop thriller Brannigan (1975)? Was it his work on tough thriller Sitting Target (1973)? Or could it be you were entranced by his directorial debut on this whimsical low-budget  London-based musical?

Credit for making a splash in turning the operetta into something that might appeal to the cntemporary youth didn’t go to The Who with Tommy or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but with middle-of-the-road song-writing team Les Reed and Barry Mason, best known for supplying a constant stream of hits for Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. They need a string of songs here as the opera format excludes dialog, so the music carries both story and emotion.

The theme tune gave British pop star Engelbert Humperdinck a Top Ten hit.

Belsize, in case you are unaware, abuts Hampstead, the most upmarket suburb of London, devoid of the garish tourist scene, immune to the wrecking balls that demolished the same year’s The London Nobody Knows. Hampstead Heath is a huge swatch of parkland, untouched by moviemakers more concerned with Swinging London, red buses and Big Ben. This has more in common with the London of Mary Poppins, rooftops prominent, the camera often lofty.

The French title, suggesting arthouse fare, could not be more misleading except that to some extent it emulates Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). However, the French picture had a more serious theme. This just concentrates on the simplicity of falling love.

At first it’s puppy love as, after a collision, a female child (Leslie Goddard), on a tricycle, follows a young man Steve (Anthony May) on his bicycle. He crashes through a billboard featuring a model Julie (Judy Huxtable) – or a model advertising something called “Julie” (it’s not clear) – and falls in love with her. And, coincidence being the essence of movie romance, bumps into her outside a shop.

She is somewhat disenchanted with the whole model business, constantly turned this way and that for the definable pose, and looking for true love. Initially, though separated by a window, their eyes have met, and they are drawn to kiss each other through the glass. Much to the little girl’s displeasure, Steve pursues Julie but the disappointed youngster soon makes a match of her own with someone her own size.

French singer Mirieille Mathieu had the chart hit in France.

Apart from the songs, this is surprisingly well done. The fantasy elements, which failed to click on movies like Wonderwall (1968) and Can Hieronymus Merkin… (1969), work a treat here, never galloping off into the unlikely, but remaining core to the movie’s light-hearted mood.

But it is directed as an audition piece, Douglas Hickox attempting more with the camera than with the script. There’s use of the fish-eye lens, the rarely-seen wipe, this time in vertical rather than horizontal fashion, long tracking shots, and characters silhouetted on the skyline.

We open audaciously with a spinning chimney pot before panning across rooftops to a shaving mirror on top of a chimney pot and watch Steve, mounted on his bike, reach the ground in a series of acrobatic moves. There’s unexpected comedy. The little girl is fond of blowing a raspberry. Doing so at a bus stop causes the waiting passengers to blame each other, the scene degenerating into unexpected slapstick. There’s a Cinerama moment as Steve loses control of his bike and the screen races past.

But once Julie is introduced in person it shifts to something deeper. The eyes meeting across an empty space and the lips approaching each other through the glass is very well done. But that’s undercut by the model being treated as a puppet.

There are some audacious cuts. A car swings by and a door opens and the next thing Julie is in the back seat twisting round to look out the back window while male fingers yank her face back to the ever-present camera. She’s constantly prodded into position. Her look changes with every wig.

The fashion is more mainstream than Wonderwall, hippie dress and headband, short red dress and matching red tights, a striped fur coat, a mini skirt and knee-high boots. By the time the camera focuses on the model, she is the one afflicted with angst, Steve more happy-go-lucky and it’s a tribute to the direction that Julie’s face is more reflective, expressive.

Given the lack of dialog, Judy Huxtable (The Touchables, 1968) is to be applauded for creating an immediately recognisable character. Anthony May (No Blade of Grass, 1970) managed less emotion in his part.

I didn’t mention that this was hardly a full-length feature, coming in at around the 30-minute mark, and hardly set Hickox up for the action genre, any more than his next picture Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970). The team of Francis Megahy and Bernie Cooper (Freelance, 1970) plus Michael Newling devised the screenplay.

Innovative and interesting with hummable tunes. You can catch it on YouTube.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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