West 11 (1963), directed by Michael Winner, is the story of Joe (Alfred Lynch), a charming and spirited but aimless young man searching for meaning in life as all the things he once believed in disappoint him or disappear. Joe’s outburst at work is witnessed by creepy Richard Dyce (Eric Portman), who follows and studies Joe before trying to recruit him to kill a rich aunt in the country and make it look like a burglary. Payment from Dyce’s inheritance money isn’t enough to entice Joe at first, but circumstances of his life will nudge him toward accepting.
Joe is caring and smart but adrift, and describes himself as numb as “an emotional leper.” He can’t find fulfillment in an endless series of jobs, his indecisive girlfriend Ilsa (Kathleen Breck), or the idea of working toward a degree, marriage or family–all things his mother (Kathleen Harrison) nags him about. The priests nag him about turning away from religion, and repeat mother’s warning about all the big city temptations and immoral girls endangering his soul. Joe fools around with divorcee Georgia (Diana Dors), which helps her feel young and desired, but leaves him empty, and he’s sobered by the vision of his future self in an old, eccentric neighbour (Finlay Currie), a kindred “truth-seeker” who’s been holed up in his flat with towering columns of books after leaving his wife and kids at Joe’s age. Then Joe gets dumped by Ilsa, evicted, and his mother dies. Now, broke and in total existential crisis, he accepts Dyce’s offer to murder the aunt. Once he’s face to face with her, however, Joe chickens out, but she dies accidentally and he leaves behind a very unique piece of evidence which his snitch “friend,” Silent (Harold Lang), immediately connects to Joe.
This film was based on the novel The Furnished Room, and is a fascinating picture of one decent misfit, a neighbourhood, and a generation, while also being a very suspenseful crime story. Sean Connery, Oliver Reed and James Mason were proposed or considered for the role of Joe, and while it’s fascinating to imagine those performances, I found Lynch very charismatic and riveting throughout. He has a likable presence to start with, and once his boss at the tailor’s shop corrects his grammar, scolds him for wearing a coloured shirt, and not pushing customers to buy pricey goods they don’t need, Joe earned my sympathy and never lost it. It takes 40 minutes for Dyce to clearly outline to him the terms of the crime, but none of the leadup felt dull to me because it lays out details that matter, of Joe’s character, his life choices and close connections, his options and paths not taken. It all makes Joe an interesting individualist, explains why he finally says yes to Dyce’s offer, why he’s unable to go through with the act, and how he decides to set things right.
The other characters are also interesting to follow as they work through their own issues. Ilsa craves male attention and doesn’t want to commit so young, but once she realizes what Joe has done she leaves a new man and a good time to find and stick with Joe. Georgia misses her child and wistfully assesses her aging face in the mirror–”Old enough to want another husband; not young enough to get the kind I want.” Dyce is ex-military and looks to order someone around (fitting right into Joe’s missing father figure slot) and recreate the excitement of battle, so he moves from one racket to another, points a gun at Joe and plans this crime like a mission. Added to these studies of lost and searching characters is the picture of gritty 1960s Notting Hill, full of personality and trouble, swinging parties, jazzy cellar clubs and street urchins (plus young David Hemmings). Lots of memorable images and people, and great theme music, in this noirish kitchen-sink drama.