B&W, 1964, 107 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Starring Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell, Dudley Sutton, Gladys Henson
AGFA / Shout! Factory (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Kino (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Cornerstone (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Before The Leather Boyshe established an entirely new look for spy films with The Leather BoysThe Ipcress File in 1964, Canadian-born director Sidney J. Furie was just turning 30 when he embarked on The Leather Boys, part of a string of films he made in England ranging from Dr. Blood's Coffin to The Young Ones. His affinity for making full use of the scope frame was already well in evidence when he tackled this entry in the British kitchen sink movement of dramatic films, which was known for titles like Room at the Top, Billy Liar, and Georgy Girl. At the time, homosexuality was criminalized in the U.K. and American films were kept on a leash by the Production Code, which presented a double challenge for screenwriter Gillian Freeman adapting her own 1961 novel since it dealt very clearly and openly with a gay relationship, pregnancy, sexual identity, and infidelity. The film tweaks the story in several ways to give it a better chance of making it to the general public, though it still sat on the shelf for around a year due to its touchy subject matter. That said, it still got released unscathed and even got a release in the U.S. intact, quite an achievement given where the story ends up. Along with Basil Dearden's watershed The Leather Boys1961 masterpiece Victim, the film now stands as a breakthrough in The Leather Boysenvelope-pushing British cinema and a key unsung entry in 1960s cinema.

Among a group of motorcycle-riding seaside rockers, young Reggie (Campbell) and Dot (kitchen sink vet Tushingham) decide to get married and go on their honeymoon by the beach. Things quickly go south as their incompatibilities become obvious, with marriage presenting a number of challenges they didn't anticipate. When Reggie has to take care of his recently widowed grandmother, Dot's immature behavior splits them further apart and pushes him closer to Pete (The Devils' Sutton), another leather-clad biker with whom he ends up sharing a room and bed for a while. Pete shows no interest in picking up girls, while Dot comes up with a plan to win back her estranged spouse despite being attracted to another biker. Ultimately Reggie is put in a position where he has to figure out which life path to take, though neither option turns out to be an easy one.

Seen today, The Leather Boys is a priceless experience for a number of reasons beyond its obvious importance as a taboo breaker. The world of rocker culture is nicely handled The Leather Boyshere including a marvelous biker relay sequence on a drizzly afternoon (this would make an interesting double feature with The Damned), while the cast features a trio of strong lead performances; Campbell The Leather Boysgets in "introducing" credit here (but had been a fixture on TV since he was a child), while Tushingham (overcoming some really huge wigs) adds some nice shading to a character that could have easily lapsed into a stereotype. However, it's Sutton who punches through here the most as a very likable character far removed from the conventions of the time, when most gay characters on film were mincing punchlines.

The Leather Boys was an early title on DVD back in the day from Kino in the U.S. and Cornerstone in the U.K., though neither looked very good and came from film elements in very rough condition. The frustrating impossibility of watching a decent version of the film finally disappeared in 2021 with a much-needed Blu-ray release by AGFA in partnership with Shout! Factory, featuring a truly stunning new restoration from the 35mm negative. You really haven't seen the film until you've watched it this way; the detail is often startling in its clarity, and the black are now nice, deep, and rich, adding immeasurably to the enjoyment factor of a film that once looked like it had been sitting on a sidewalk for weeks. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also far sharper and cleaner The Leather Boysthan ever before, much better than the muddy and The Leather Boysscratchy track we had before. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

In a very welcome bonus feature, Furie is joined by biographer Daniel Kremer for a great audio commentary track that's as informative as you'd hope. The director went back and rewatched the film just before recording, so his memory is really sharp here as he chats about the rich pool of talent in British cinema at the time, a running gag involving the peculiar resemblance of one cast member to Rodney Dangerfield (whom he later directed in Ladybugs), the moderate professional tension between the two leads at times due to the addition of some improvisation in a few scenes, and lots more. Also included are two audio interviews with Tushingham (34m59s) and Sutton (28m30s) conducted in 2013 for Kremer's book with the topics including class snobbery in the U.K., the eruption of the Cuban Missile Crisis during shooting, Sutton's first experience working with "beatnik" Furie on The Boys, the frequent communist sympathies in the theater community at the time, the horrific consequences of British anti-gay laws at the time, the beauty of shooting in black-and-white, and some tense moments with producer Raymond Stross. Finally "Consenting Adults: A Study of Homosexuality" (39m2s) from the Something Weird vaults (previously out as the headliner in one of their Third Sex Sinema line) is a fascinating 1967 British TV documentary capturing interviews with both men and women living as couples and featuring an intriguing peek at attitudes of the time, some positive and others (mostly from the narrator) seeming pretty squirmy now.

Reviewed on July 4, 2021