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'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Breathless' & Ivor Novello: bfi Southbank

Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
Ivor Novello, Mabel Poulton, The Constant Nymph
Jean Seberg, Breathless
Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces (top); Ivor Novello, Mabel Poulton, The Constant Nymph (middle); Jean Seberg, Breathless (bottom)

Bob Rafelson's biting social critique Five Easy Pieces (1970), starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black; Adrian Brunel's silent romantic drama The Constant Nymph (1928), a tale of “forbidden love” starring stage and movie idol Ivor Novello and Mabel Poulton; and Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave classic Breathless (1959), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, are some of the features to be screened on Friday, Aug. 20, at London's bfi Southbank.

Five Easy Pieces remains one of the most impressive accomplishments of the more mature Hollywood cinema of the '70s, with Jack Nicholson and Karen Black delivering relentlessly raw performances.

It's unfortunate that American cinema, now senile, is going through its second infancy. In other words, movies such as Five Easy Pieces hardly ever get made – if they get made at all. Even current independent filmmakers rarely bother to aim their lenses at the clogged arteries found in the heart of bourgeois society and its values.

Adapted by Adrian Brunel and Alma Reville (later the wife of Alfred Hitchcock) from Margaret Kennedy and Basil Dean's play (based on Kennedy's novel), The Constant Nymph revolves around the relationship between a young, married composer (Ivor Novello) and a teenager (Mabel Poulton) who happens to be madly in love with him. Benita Hume (who'd later marry both Ronald Colman and George Sanders – though not at the same time) plays the composer's jealous wife.

And to think that today the teen-girl/adult-male-composer attraction would be even more scandalous than in the 1920s – or in the 1940s, when the Hollywood remake starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, and Alexis Smith was released.

Novello, who was both gay and fey, had no problem being a top romantic star both on the British stage and the British screen. That's kinda surprising.

Mabel Poulton, whose strident voice didn't match her looks at all, turned out to be a British version of Lina Lamont, the character Jean Hagen played in Singin' in the Rain. According to film historian Anthony Slide, who met with the actress, Poulton was totally clueless as to why her career sank following the advent of talking pictures.

Photos & film information: bfi website

Five Easy Pieces

Undeniably one of the finest (and most influential) films made in Hollywood during the glorious 70s, Bob Rafelson's modern classic - lovingly restored for its 40th anniversary - also boasts what is probably Jack Nicholson's greatest performance.

Despite his claims to the contrary, oil-rigger Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) remains torn between the aimless trailer-park existence he now shares with waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black, also superb) and the constraining middle-class mores of the musically gifted family he left behind. A trip up the West Coast only exacerbates his sense of alienation… Brilliantly written by Carole Eastman and evocatively shot by the great László Kovács, the film is both a piercingly astute character study and an unusually subtle exploration of how class plays out in American society. Caustic, witty and finally deeply moving, it also offers a memorable lesson in how to order the simplest of snacks. - Geoff Andrew

The Constant Nymph

Based on a best-selling novel of the period, this controversial story of forbidden love was voted the most popular film of 1928. Novello is the bohemian composer in denial about his passion for the teenage Tessa, the fulfilment of which necessarily ends in tragedy. Poulton is perfectly cast as Novello's muse; her free spirit flourishes in the picturesque Austrian mountains of the film's opening scenes, but is gradually sapped by 'civilisation', in the form of her cousin's London home. Live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.


Godard's first feature and the film that (perhaps misleadingly) came to define the novelty of the New Wave. Petty crook and poseur Michel Poiccard kills a traffic cop and goes on the run. He takes refuge with American paper-seller and aspirant journalist Patricia. Godard's elliptical story-telling and the hero's seeming amorality were equally puzzling - even shocking - to audiences at the time. Now it's a (recently restored) classic.

'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Breathless' & Ivor Novello: bfi Southbank © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to 'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Breathless' & Ivor Novello: bfi Southbank

  1. st29

    Jean Seberg was a goddess in Breathless, but she was no saint. Her Saint Joan left much to be desired.