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Subject: Karel Reisz, Film Director

dies at 76
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Date Posted: November 28, 2002 2:42:16 EDT

Karel Reisz, a Czech refugee who became a leading director of the British New Wave before making "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and other Hollywood dramas, died on Monday at a hospital near his home in London. He was 76.

The cause was a blood disorder, said his wife, Betsy Blair, the actress.

Mr. Reisz, who found success more recently in the theater, directed only 11 features in his four-decade career, but they were noted for their polish, ambition and psychological acuity. Also one of the cinema's finest editors, he was co-author with Gavin Millar of the highly regarded volume "The Technique of Film Editing."

His most lasting contribution was probably in the late 1950's and early 60's, when he, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and other raw, provocative young filmmakers were known first as the Free Cinema movement and later as the British New Wave. They were the cinematic counterparts of the "angry young men" of British theater, playwrights who favored social realism and working-class milieus.

But Mr. Reisz (pronounced RICE) was best known to American audiences for his later Hollywood works, like "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1981), an adaptation of John Fowles's best-selling novel, starring Meryl Streep; "Who'll Stop the Rain?" (1978), an adaptation of Robert Stone's Vietnam-era best seller, starring Nick Nolte; and "Sweet Dreams" (1985), about the country singer Patsy Cline, played by Jessica Lange.

In recent years, Mr. Reisz worked increasingly as a theater director, staging plays by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. In 1995 he directed Mr. Pinter's "Moonlight," starring Jason Robards and Blythe Danner, and in 1999 his "Ashes to Ashes," with Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn, both for the Roundabout Theater Company. At the Pinter Festival at Lincoln Center in 2001, he staged "A Kind of Alaska" and "Landscape." At a Beckett festival at Lincoln Center in 1996 he directed "Happy Days," and for the Gate Theater's filming of all Beckett's stage plays, he did "Act Without Words I."

Born in 1926 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, Karel Reisz was sent to England in 1938 under the Kindertransport program because his father, a Jewish lawyer, feared the threatened Nazi incursion into the Sudetenland. His parents died in Auschwitz. Mr. Reisz and a brother, Paul, of Manchester, England, who was sent away earlier through the Kindertransport, were the only members of the family to survive the war.

Besides his brother and Ms. Blair, his second wife, Mr. Reisz is survived by three sons from his earlier marriage to Julia Coppard, Matthew, Toby and Barney, all of London; a stepdaughter, Kerry Kelly Novick of Ann Arbor, Mich., from his wife's marriage to Gene Kelly; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Reisz flew for the Royal Air Force before studying chemistry at Oxford and becoming a schoolteacher in London. Spurred by a growing passion for film, he became a critic for Sight and Sound magazine.

While in college, he was also a co-founder of Sequence, the magazine of the Oxford Film Society, with Richardson and Anderson, his fellow film enthusiasts. In 1956, when Mr. Reisz was working at the National Film Theater as a programmer, the three friends created what they called the Free Cinema film series, featuring films made by all of them.

The series caught on, and soon the filmmakers were associated with its socially conscious, anti-Hollywood spirit.

In 1958 Mr. Reisz made "We Are the Lambeth Boys," a documentary about the Lambeth Youth Club in South London. He had his first major success in 1960 with "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," one of the seminal works of the British New Wave, which starred Albert Finney as an angry, two-fisted factory worker in the British Midlands.

In 1964 he worked with Mr. Finney again, producing a remake of the 1937 suspense classic "Night Must Fall," about a psychotic killer.

Mr. Reisz had an even bigger international hit with "Morgan!" (1966), an anarchic comedy about a rowdy artist.

His most ambitious project, with Vanessa Redgrave, was a biography of the dancer Isadora Duncan. The results were disastrous for his career. A three-hour version of the film, "Isadora," was released in a Los Angeles theater in late 1968 to qualify for that year's Oscars, but drew dreadful reviews. Months later, a 2 hour 8 minute version, retitled "The Loves of Isadora," was released nationwide.

"I can't quite believe that the movie we are now seeing, with its odd lapses in continuity and its inability to make up its mind whether it is flashing forward or backward in time, is exactly the movie that Reisz originally had in mind," Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

Many critics, including Canby, expressed the view that the fiasco had deprived Ms. Redgrave of a much-deserved Academy Award for what was perhaps her finest work on film.

Mr. Reisz did not make a movie again until 1974, when he was persuaded to make his first film in the United States, "The Gambler," starring James Caan. It was well received, but Mr. Reisz said at the time that he would have preferred to have made it in England.

The movie established Mr. Reisz as a bankable director of studio films, leading to his greatest United States success, "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

His final film was "Everybody Wins" (1990), an underappreciated private-eye drama starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, with a script by Arthur Miller.

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