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Karel Reisz, 76; Director Was 'New Realism' Pioneer

November 28, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Karel Reisz, an influential figure in British cinema's new-realism movement whose best-known work as a director includes "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," "Isadora" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," has died. He was 76.

The Czech-born Reisz died of undisclosed causes Monday in London.

A leading figure in Britain's Free Cinema movement, which attempted to give a voice to working-class England in the 1950s through documentaries, the former film critic made his feature film debut in 1960 with "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," a gritty portrayal of working-class life that marked the film debut of Albert Finney.

Reisz also introduced Vanessa Redgrave to movie audiences in "Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment," an offbeat 1966 comedy that earned her a best-actress Academy Award nomination.

Two years later, she starred in Reisz's "Isadora," which was based on the life of modern dancer Isadora Duncan, which earned Redgrave another best actress Oscar nomination.

Reisz made his American film debut in 1974 with "The Gambler," an intense drama starring James Caan as a gambling-addicted professor, which Reisz followed in 1978 with "Who'll Stop the Rain," starring Nick Nolte.

Meryl Streep earned a best actress nomination for Reisz's 1981 screen version of John Fowles' novel "The French Lieutenant's Woman," as did Jessica Lange for "Sweet Dreams," Reisz's 1985 film about country music legend Patsy Cline.

In 1990, Reisz directed his last movie, "Everybody Wins," which was adapted by Arthur Miller from his play "Some Kind of Love Story" and starred Nolte and Deborah Winger.

Reisz then directed plays in London, Dublin, Paris and New York.

Although a revered name to many movie buffs, Reisz remained largely unknown to the average American moviegoer. He directed only nine films in 30 years, once prompting fellow director Sidney Lumet to jokingly lament to the low-key Reisz: "Why must you be so boring and picky?"

Kevin Thomas, a film writer for The Times, said Reisz was "one of the major directors" to emerge from the British cinema's era of new realism in the late '50s and early '60s.

But, he said, Reisz went beyond that as a filmmaker.

"He was not chained to the working-class grit of, say, 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,' " Thomas said. "He could move superbly to the romanticism and the epic sweep and grandeur of 'Isadora' and her incredible life and so superbly played by Vanessa Redgrave. And 'The Gambler,' I think, is an absolute masterpiece. It's really a bold picture."

Film historian Richard Schickel, a movie critic for Time magazine, said Reisz for a time in the '60s was "a figure to be reckoned with in the movie business."

"The spirit of the time matched his sensibility: a director trying to make movies that didn't fit the conventional mold. But it was a relatively brief moment where people took him with great seriousness.

"The trouble with cinema is you have to make at least a few really successful movies -- commercially and generally accepted movies. If you look at the rest of his filmography, excepting 'French Lieutenant's Woman,' most of his movies were very marginal."

A self-described "film fanatic," Reisz was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, in 1926. The son of a Jewish lawyer, he emigrated to England before the Nazi invasion when he was 12. His parents, who remained in Czechoslovakia, died in a concentration camp.

Reisz, who spoke little English when he arrived, graduated from the Quaker school that had sponsored him in England. He served as a fighter pilot in the Czech squadron of the Royal Air Force near the end of the war.

Reisz, who earned a bachelor's degree in science from Emmanuel College, spent two years after college teaching working-class grammar school students in London. He once said it "was my first taste of social reality," but he quit to become a freelance writer. He was a movie critic for the influential film journals "Sight and Sound" and "Sequence" and was program director for the National Film Theatre in London from 1952 to 1955.

While a student at the British Film Academy in the early '50s, he was commissioned to write "The Technique of Film Editing," which is considered a classic study of the history, theory and practice of editing.

In 1955, Reisz made his film debut as co-director, with Tony Richardson," of "Momma Don't Allow," a documentary short. He went on to make instructional and promotional movies for Ford Motor Co. and, in 1957, co-produced Lindsay Anderson's documentary "Every Day Except Christmas."

Reisz later produced Anderson's 1963 feature movie "This Sporting Life."

Reisz's first solo directing credit was for a 1959 documentary about a London youth club, "We Are the Lambeth Boys," which he also produced.

Having cast a virtually unknown Jeremy Irons as Streep's co-star in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and providing the film debuts of Finney and Redgrave, Reisz was often credited with spotting talented actors.

"And one takes the credit happily, but it's not really true," he told The Times in 1985. "All those people I used in my films already had reputations onstage. But I do like using fresh faces. They have a kind of innocence of the camera that gives them a freedom to express themselves that they'll lose later on when they become canny."

Reisz is survived by his wife of 40 years, actress Betsy Blair; three sons, Toby, Matthew and Barney; and a stepdaughter, Kerry.

Services are pending.

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