The Rebel (1961)
Tony Hancock stars in his default role as a dour and downtrodden version of himself in this witty and prescient exploration of a nihilistic, self-referential and obsessively obscurantist art establishment.
Cursed with a big dream and a small talent, Hancock struggles to cope with the confines of his orderly, predictable and comfortably dull life as a junior clerk at an accounting firm, until at last his repressed inner artist finally breaks free to reshape his life forever. Fleeing from stuffy London to bohemian Paris, Hancock’s singular lack of painting talent is soon mistaken for a new and profound artistic expression as he rapidly rises to the pinnacle of European creative society through a mixture of good fortune, fast talking and the rigid intellectual conformity of an outwardly rebellious clique.
Emulated by struggling painters, courted by wealthy industrialists and pursued by their wives, Hancock’s every action and utterance is elevated to the status of profundity and uncommon insight as the aesthetic establishment both buys into and bolsters Hancock’s own delusions of greatness. As a result both his fame and resale value continue to increase not only for him, but for an ever-expanding orbit of agents, exhibitors and other hangers-on within the creative community.
Naturally it can’t last, and eventually the artistic world turns against him, declaring his work to be puerile and shallow, even though Hancock remains as reliably inept as he’s ever been. With the cycle completed, the film closes with Hancock back in his old London lodgings, having gained only a few hot meals while his agent has pocketed yet another fortune and moved on to the next creative meal-ticket.
In its own gentle yet insightful way, the Rebel is a conglomeration of Hancock’s earlier output, shining a light on a man who’s desperate to be taken seriously as an artistic and intellectual force, but lacks the background, connections and raw talent required to realise his dreams. Some famous Hancock’s Half Hours such as the Poetry Society and the Gourmet are writ large as his character struggles to realise the greatness he firmly believes is predestined, and yet is constitutionally incapable of reaching. In fact it’s this underlying theme that runs through almost the entire body of his work, making Hancock’s career in comedy and his untimely demise all the more poignant and touching, as life and art turned and turned about so often throughout his life that it was difficult to tell one from the other.
One of the things that makes Tony Hancock’s comedy so enduring is that we recognise ourselves in that simple working man who finds some small way to fight back against his crushing nihilistic existence each and every day. From the Rebel’s brilliant monologue on the morning commute to the perfectly executed choreography of the accountancy office, we lend Hancock our sympathy and support because we’ve all felt his existential agony first hand.
The foundational ideas underpinning the Rebel are as relevant today as they were in 1961, as we watch an increasingly remote artistic elite drifting ever further into conceptual obscurity, while still claiming to be the authentic voice and conscience of the human experience. Once inside that protected, moneyed and insulated clique, the stark choice between conformity and obscurity can be a powerful persuader for even the most ardent expressive soul.
The big joke running through the whole of the Rebel is that it’s not really a study of rebellion at all, but an ironic and cutting exposure of a shallow, self-absorbed and viciously conformist artistic establishment.
The Rebel provides much food for reflection in this time of great change.