A Hard Day's Night, released in 1964, was the Beatles' first movie, and by common consent their best.
The reasons why this picture succeeds where other Beatles celluloid efforts didn't are quite simple. They didn't try too hard, the plot was kept simple, and minds were not cluttered by grandiose visions or pretensions. The film is clothed in an "arty" veneer, largely due to the fact that it was made in crisp, evocative black and white. The pace is fast and breezy, brimming with the self-confidence of its time. And of course the music is wonderful!
The movie revolves around a journey made by the Fab Four to appear on a television show, and the associated activities of Paul's "grandfather", played by Wilfrid Brambell. In amongst all this there are musical set-pieces.
The opening title sequences set the tone with their slick editing, preparing us for the impending "journey". The scenes on the train are some of the best remembered, including the encounter with the man in the bowler hat (played by Richard Vernon). Here one of the main themes of the film is seen, namely the lads coming into contact with people and situations outside their normal milieu, and their cheeky irreverence with regard to authority figures and social class. The Beatles' humour helps to smooth the edges.
Of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr arguably displayed the greatest aptitude for acting and the comedic requirements of the film. John Lennon's wit and impishness carried him through. A few people have made disparaging remarks about Paul McCartney's acting here, but I don't think he fares too badly. Describing the band as "the new Marx Brothers" and Ringo as "the new Charlie Chaplin" was hyperbole, but there is no doubt that they exhibited a naturalness on screen, in this movie at least, and this contributed to an air of informality which is most endearing.
There is some attempt to depict the Beatles' routine, including their hectic schedule and the demands of the fans and fame. Occasionally this feels artificial, but generally their charm wins the day. The "non-acting" segments are more convincing, almost having a documentary-like flavour. The implication of some scenes I think is that the Beatles were isolated and suffocated by their fame, whilst others are having enormous fun on their coat-tails.
The various small "sketches" and vignettes help to give A Hard Day's Night a distinctive quality. The "shaving" scene involving George Harrison and John Junkin, with John Lennon clowning around in the bath, springs to mind. Odd surreal touches like these lift the picture out of the ordinary, and hold the interest.
The "Ringo on the run" scenes have been justly acclaimed, both for the acting and the cinematography. Was the moral here that "normal life" is just as lonely and complex as life in the spotlight of millions? All existence has its disappointments, its downsides and its dark sides.
Some of the social commentary is quite subtle, most notably when the guys meet "media types", who represent a transitional stage between the old school of the fifties and the Swinging Sixties generation. The film gently pokes fun at some of the cliches and absurdities of the showbusiness crowd
Brambell, Junkin and others add a solidity and a substance to the acting. Victor Spinetti delivers a nice comedic stint as the morose director/producer at the television studios. Spinetti's "hairy" sweater is also the sartorial high point of the film!
Although the story drifts a fraction towards the end, this is still a charming document of a period in time, as well as fine entertainment.