Sparrows Can't Sing review, Newsweek, 5/13/63
Joan Littlewood is the talented British woman who directed the brilliant production of Brendan Behan's "The Hostage." Sparrows Can't Sing, her first film, is a frustrating work, for it is a strident proclamation of Miss Littlewood's already acknowledged talent. Its virtues and its faults both stem from the fact that it is all style.
The story line is next to nothing, the barest excuse for digression and virtuoso display. Home is the sailor, Charlie Gooding (James Booth), to find that Maggie his wife has set up housekeeping with Bert the bus driver. It takes Charlie a long while to discover this, and a longer while to get to the confrontation with Bert in the barroom. But in the meantime there are all kinds of tragicomic morsels of neorealism. The homey squalor, the quaint ugliness, the endearing nastiness, all range in effectiveness from the merely pungent (Charlie's brother Frank disappears into the primitive bog, calling back that he'll be "in the music room") to the inspired (searching for Maggie, Charlie ascends a staircase to find in successive apartments a couple of Arabs cooking things on the floor, a tribe of dancing Africans, a woman scolding a 5-year-old for being drunk and creating a disturbance in a a pub, and finally, a bunch of vaguely sinister middle Europeans).
Occasionally there are some amusing pieces of dialogue. "Why should I go to work when I 'ave the 'ealth and strength to 'ang around the streets?" one young man asks. Or Charlie himself, trying to find Maggie, tells his brother, "I can either wring your neck or knock your 'ead in. Which is it to be?" And his brother answers, with sublime irrelevance, "Remember my game leg." But there is hardly ever a full-blown incident, a whole completed sequence. Even the barroom brawl is between everybody except the two principals (as it was in "The Hostage," and one ought not imitate oneself in a first movie).
The marvel is that Miss Littlewood is able to carry the audience's interest for the full length of the feature--for she does carry it, with fast talk, fast cutting, fast business. But this is all savory spice. What she needs now is meat and potatoes.