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DVD Review: IF.... (Criterion Blu-ray)

Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1969
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Christine Noonan, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Graham Crowden, Peter Jeffrey, Robert Swann, Mona Washbourne, Anthony Nicholls, Charles Lloyd Pack, Geoffrey Chater
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Release Date: October 23, 2011, 8:02 am
Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, violence, adult themes)
Run Time: 01h:51m:45s

“My face is a never-fading source of wonder to me.” - Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell)

IF.... (Criterion Blu-ray)
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Only a few years before Malcolm McDowell did a little film with Stanley Kubrick, he starred in this look at an anarchic society in Britain. Sure, we've seen movies set in boarding schools before, but this one is heralded as one of the best.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A-

There’s little doubt that the first thing we think of when we see Malcolm McDowell, even today, is Stanley Kubrick’s classic, A Clockwork Orange. His portrayal of rebel British teenager Alex is still as eerie and poignant as it was back in 1971. Two years before that film more than put McDowell on the map, he starred in If…, a small film that gave us an unknowing glimpse into what we could expect to see when Alex burst onto the scene. Directed by Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life), this tale of a boarding school in late-sixties England won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Now, The Criterion Collection follows up their 2007 DVD release of If… with this new, and equally-impressive Blu-ray package.

The dawn of another school year us upon a group of British boarding school attendees. It’s seemingly business as usual as all of the students have moved in and are ready to begin or resume their studies, albeit with a religious and even slight military bent. While everything is status quo for most, a trio of students is slowly growing more and more disenfranchised with their surroundings. These three boys, led by Mick Travis (McDowell), are getting into more and more trouble throughout the campus, culminating in a trip to a room, where they are beaten for their “crimes.” This extended punishment pushes Mick and the boys over the edge, and their method of revenge is not only extreme, but could prove deadly.

The most impressive aspect of Lindsay Anderson’s direction is the way in which he presents his film early on as a simple story of another year at a British boarding school. We’re introduced to the regular attendees, the new kid, and even a new faculty member. Everything seems perfectly normal, and there are no signs of what’s to come. Anderson slowly builds the tension, as Mick and his “Crusaders” continue to fight the establishment and wreck mayhem, albeit in small doses, on the school. The director bides his time, and, admittedly, tested this viewer’s patience, in slowly developing the story, but the finale is well worth the wait. The final five minutes, specifically, pack a huge punch that will stick with you long after the end credits have finished.

All of the performers are solid, and, at first we think we’re in for more of an ensemble piece. After the first half hour, however, we realize that this is Malcolm McDowell’s show. He’s way more restrained here than he was in A Clockwork Orange, but Mick Travis is a far less complex character than Kubrick’s Alex. Still, there are glimpses of McDowell’s Alex in his work as Mick, with the beating scene being a glaring example. We also get great performances by David Wood, Richard Warwick, and Christine Noonan, but the standout supporting work comes from Graham Crowden as the quirky History Master. Slightly emulating one of the professors from the Harry Potter movies, Crowden steals all of the (unfortunately) few minutes that he appears in, bringing some much- needed levity to a rather dour tale.

Decades before the Columbine massacre, Anderson’s film is way ahead of its time. Sure, it’s much more difficult to watch now, in the wake of that and other school-centric massacres, but it’s just as poignant as any of the films that have been in direct response to the tragedy in Colorado. Initially rated X upon its theatrical release, the sex and violence content pales in comparison to what we see in movies today, but much of the harsh rating can be attributed to Anderson’s envelope-pushing subject matter. Criterion’s Blu-ray disc release of If… features naturally superior audio and video presentations to their earlier DVD version, as well as an identical extras collection. The extras include an audio commentary track with McDowell and film critic and historian David Robinson, an episode of the Scottish TV series Cast and Crew focusing on If…, an interview with the aforementioned Graham Crowden, and Thursday’s Children, an Oscar-winning 1954 documentary directed by Lindsay Anderson, that focuses on a school for deaf children.

Chuck Aliaga October 23, 2011, 8:02 am