Just as the word punk existed before the music did, the concept of the rebel outsiders breaking all the rules has existed as long as rules have (probably: I’d bet my PhD on it anyway). One of those iterations surely included the beatniks, at least in the popular imagination. The Party’s Over’s release was delayed for a while due to censorship not of its violence, youthful decadence, matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality but – wait for it – for featuring necrophilia. The director Guy Hamilton and producers Jack Hawkins, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Perry demanded their names be removed in protest. It was finally released three years later in 1965 (1966 in the US).
The film starts with the fanfare accorded to a production company named Monarch, but quickly switches gears by opening on a guy hanging from a balcony crying for help as a party goes on inside the building. Funky jazz plays on a Victrola while desultory young people smoke, smooch, drink, and mill about. The walls are covered with tennis rackets, beer mats and art. We follow a cigarette from hand to hand, introducing some of our key players until we end on Moise (Oliver Reed) who uses it to light a cigarillo and, swilling beer, wanders over to the balcony to take a butcher’s. He responds by pouring some bevvie over the luckless lad.
An imperious Melina (Louise Sorel) demands that he help the unfortunate. Moise instead calls on Geronimo (Mike Pratt) and the others manage to drag the fellow up. Moise shrugs at Melina, who rises and commands him to drop dead. Moise climbs up on the balcony rail and jumps. Cue screams, a passing look of angst on Melina’s face and then laughter from the crowd as we cut to Ollie hanging from a lamppost, smiling around his cigarillo. He bows and walks on.
Cut to the group as they begin desultory walk over a pre-dawn Albert Bridge as the voice-over by Reed describes the film as the story of these young folk who became ‘for want of a better word…beatniks’. It also clarifies that ‘the film is not an attack on beatniks; the film has been made to show the loneliness and the unhappiness, and the eventual tragedy that can come from a life lived without love for anyone or anything.’ Sure we’re going to cast glamourous young actors and make cool beatnik art studios but the message is this is bad.
Also necrophilia, much more clearly a bad thing.
Like so many films that show youth subcultures, it both glamourises it and oversimplifies it. We’ve already seen Reed as the beatnik artist in Tony Hanock’s The Rebel though he was French there. One of the most fun things here is Reed getting to trot out a series of accents in one brilliant scene as he shows down Melina’s American fiancé who’s come to drag her back to New York. So often Reed was forced to play to type, it’s always good to be reminded how much he could do.
The beatniks lead the hapless fiancé Carson (Clifford David) on a merry chase from studio to pub to café and back again until Nina (Katherine Woodville) takes pity on him. Unlike the dilettante Melina, Nina is a real artist though posh as the day is long (which makes all the difference in the end).
The problem is Melina disappeared after a whale of a party and it takes a while for people to begin to put together their fractured memories of what went on at the party. And what’s up with nervous Philip (Jonathan Burn)? With Nina by his side, Carson fights to find out what’s really going on with his mercurial fiancée in the face of the beatnik hostility, mostly wrangled by Reed’s Moise. In between there’s a lot of vintage footage of swinging Chelsea, gorgeously shot and a lot of beatnik posturing, bad art and slang. There’s even a cameo by Eddie Albert that proves surprisingly tender (yes, that Eddie Albert).
Well worth a watch even if you aren’t the kind of person who would watch Reed in almost anything. C’mon: beatniks in swinging 60s London! Currently streaming on Amazon in the US and I think BFI in the UK.