Friday, June 08, 2007

Remembering the "If...." Girl

"I was secretly in love with Christine Noonan," Malcolm McDowell admits during his wonderful, open-hearted audio commentary for Criterion's eagerly-awaited issue of Lindsay Anderson's IF.... (1968), "but she was married, so there was no question of any hanky-panky."

McDowell certainly wasn't alone in his affections for IF....'s enigmatic, coffee dispensing heroine; in fact, I must admit that the possibility of learning more about Christine Noonan was one of the major reasons I was so keen to get to the audio commentary and extras for this superb set. On the one hand, I was disappointed in this regard because McDowell's commentary was recorded in 2002, a year before Noonan's premature death from cancer, so her passing goes unreported by the disc, even in the 2007 comments by film historian David Robinson, a visitor to the filming who augments the commentary track. But on the other hand, McDowell tells us just enough about this robust yet alluring Eastender to appease our curiosity and keep it vibrant at the same time.

The film, which Criterion will release on June 19, is a scathing criticism of Britain's public school system with surrealist passages, and was filmed by cameraman Miroslav Ondricek in both color and black-and-white. Noonan appears in only a few scenes of the film, and all but one of her scenes is in black-and-white, the palate that brings her particular qualities most to the fore. She first appears as the waitress in an off-the-A3 greasy spoon, who serves coffee to a pair of hooky-playing collegiates played by McDowell (in his first screen role) and David Hood. McDowell, sizing up the Girl (as she's called) like a predator, steals a kiss, for which she slaps him good and hard. He demands sugar for his coffee, takes two heaping helpings, then drops the polluted spoon back in the sugar bowl before walking sullenly away to a jukebox. Moments later, her hand appears on his shoulder.

He turns to face her.

Her eyes fix on him, tease him, tempt him.

They communicate through their senses of sight and smell, venting their sublimated passions through their teeth like a pair of tigers on heat. McDowell lunges at her, and she lunges back. Before you know it -- with David Hood looking on, touchingly covering his friend's forgotten coffee cup with a saucer -- the two of them are rolling violently on the floor, all teeth and claws and flailing limbs.
Then, in a sudden change of tense that cements the sequence as one of the most memorable in the postwar British cinema, the two wrestlers are suddenly stark naked in their tussle, the Girl baring her teeth and sinking them into McDowell's arm.

He grimaces in satisfaction, and then -- suddenly -- everything is back to normal, the scene utterly discharged of its sexual tension. The Girl joins the two young men at their table and says, enigmatically, "I like Johnny" -- Johnny being the David Hood character, who smirks contentedly as though he's been married to the Girl for years.
Cut to the three of them riding a stolen BMA motorcycle, the Girl standing between McDowell and Hood on the seat, extending her arms in the air -- a JULES & JIM image for a new age. On the Criterion disc, as they ride past the camera, you can barely discern a look on Noonan's face that suggests sheer, undisguised terror. McDowell admits that he had never driven a motorcycle before that day, giving her trepidations good reason.
The Girl shows up thrice more in the film. Offered a view of the heavens by his classmate Peanuts, McDowell looks through his telescope and points it down from the stars to a house, where the Girl makes a charmingly unlikely appearance combing her hair in her bedroom window, then looks back at him and waves fondly in his direction. When the protagonists are later punished for an indiscretion (nothing too serious -- shooting a faculty member) by being made to clean out a storage room, they find a cabinet of jarred fetuses, and the Girl steps out of nowhere to embrace one of these "mysteries of life" with warm, maternal hands. (McDowell recalls that Noonan actually fainted upon seeing the preserved human fetus and completed the scene only with difficulty. She's perfect in it.) The last time we the Girl, she's with the others atop the roof at College House, firing pistols and machine guns at the faculty and guests of the university.
Without the Girl beside McDowell and the others, the film's climactic act of revolution and anarchy would not only appear more random, it would root the scene in realism. However, with her there and actually taking part in their vicious assault on tired tradition, the climax becomes at once more fanciful -- she's there as an inspirational image, like the magazine clippings adorning McDowell's dormitory wall -- and more rooted in serious concerns. The presence of the Girl helps to coalesce the rebels into a family -- an alternative family, fighting for an alternative society (alternative to the school' s tiered and systemized cruelty), one more sensibly based in righteousness and brotherhood.

It's such an odd role and Christine Noonan -- short, thick-haired, and solidly built -- seems an odd, decidedly non-ethereal actress to have been cast in it, but she lays absolute claim to it, her appeal still direct and enticingly musky after all these years. "She was really like that," marvels McDowell as he watches the moment where she turns to meet his covetous gaze through a curtain of heavy black hair.
McDowell credits his reaction to Noonan's unexpected slapping of his face with his landing a screen career. The two of them auditioned together and he, knowing only his lines and not the scripted action, genuinely responded to her slap ("she didn't hold anything back") by stalking her like a tiger around the stage and tackling her. This, of course, was exactly the action that was scripted. "You've got your Mick and your Girl," screenwriter David Sherwin, all of 24 years old, told Lindsay Anderson -- referring to McDowell's character, Mick Travis -- and the rest is history. Anderson recreated McDowell's "Zen moment" at the end of O LUCKY MAN! (1973), the second film in his and Sherwin's "Mick Travis trilogy," himself slapping McDowell with a film script and thus launching Travis' own screen career. Christine Noonan also appears briefly in O LUCKY MAN! as a worker in a coffee factory, one of many, many correlations to the earlier film. (Unfortunately, this masterpiece still awaits its debut on DVD.) She was curiously absent from the final film of the trilogy, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982).

Knowing that hanky-panky was out of the question with his wedded co-star, McDowell cheekily proposed to Anderson that he and Noonan perform some of their wrestling in the nude. ("It's up there with the one from WOMEN IN LOVE," he says of the sequence, "it was quite risqué for its time.") Anderson demurred from suggesting it to Noonan himself, but was agreeable if she had no problem with the idea. McDowell promptly approached his co-star and opened, "Lindsay has asked me to ask you..." to which she replied in her broad Eastern accent, "Oy don't moynd." Within minutes, they were both starkers and making cinema history. For his part, McDowell remembers feeling as though he had "died and gone to Heaven."
I didn't have the opportunity to see IF.... for the first time until I was in my late twenties, and obviously I'm American, but I can imagine how this film must have spoken to intelligent British youth when it was released in the wake of actual revolution in the streets of Paris and elsewhere in 1968. A film like this would have been taken immediately to heart by many politically- or progressively-minded young Britons, even young Americans dissatisfied with their different-yet-the-same System, as a blueprint for future action -- future action that might have taken any number of contrarian forms, from participating in public demonstrations, to starting an underground newspaper, or simply buying a copy of "Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones.
However deep one's commitment to the ideal of change, finding a girlfriend like Christine Noonan would have surely been part of the plan. All these years later, her nameless heroine retains her uncanny ability to provoke, inspire, and encourage our vestiges of revolutionary spirit, and there are those of us who will always love her for it.


  1. Thank for this beautiful description of the "no-star" fo forgotten revolution.
    We can't forget this gorgeous lady bringing another dimension this fascinating description of coercition academic society

  2. Surbhi Goel2:36 AM

    Thank you, Tim. I saw the film recently and have been looking for more information on the Nick Travis Trilogy. Christine Noonan is a fascinating actress, a very interesting character in the film - a short screen presence but the powerful sublimated 'woman' image!

  3. Surbhi Goel3:14 AM

    *Mick Travis

  4. I think I've been looking for your blog ever since I've started mine. A blog that doesn't just review films, but really analyzes them and gets to the deeper information in them. Thanks so much for this review, if... is one of my all time favorites, and I look forward to a day now full of going through your archives.

  5. Merci beaucoup pour cette ode à Christine Noonan (que j'ai découvert il y a quelques jours dans If...).

  6. Anonymous6:05 PM

    A bloody brilliant film. It encapsulates so much of how I felt when I was at school with my own rebellious nature and enduring all the crap at the time - and at the ripe old age of 60 I still feel the same. Neil


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