The black and white film opens with a close-up on Jimmy Porter sitting in on trumpet in a crowded, smoky jazz club (titles over). Having finished to a round of applause, he goes over to his friend Cliff, sitting at a front row table, but his friend waves him off in dumb-show, being more intent on winning the affections of a woman. (The real Chris Barber jazz band is visible in b/g). Scenes of Jimmy walking home through the depressing streets of a Midlands industrial town (Derby) serve to give the film its overall visual context.
Arriving home at their attic flat, he surreptitiously goes through his sleeping wife's handbag before getting into bed with her. It is not until seven minutes into the film that the first lines of dialogue are spoken. The next morning, with a train rattling past the open window, Jimmy wakes up and walks into Cliff's room. He complains that Alison is writing secret letters to her mother — conspiring against him, as he sees it.
The next scene is Sunday morning, and a shortened version of Act I of the play, with Alison at the ironing board and Jimmy and Cliff reading the Sunday papers. Much of Jimmy's tirade against Alison is cut, but his derision of her family is still very evident. Jimmy and Cliff start the 'where's nobody?' Music Hall sketch from Act III of the play, but Alison doesn't play along and the scene ends in horseplay, with Alison getting a burn as the ironing board is overturned.
Cliff and Alison play a tender scene as he puts soap on her burned arm, establishing that their relationship is affectionate, but not sexual. The scene ends on Alison's line "I'm frightened".
On Monday morning, we see Jimmy and Cliff setting up their sweet stall in the market place. The character of a vindictive market inspector, Hurst, played by Donald Pleasance, is introduced.
Alison, meanwhile, visits her doctor. She tells him her own carelessness caused the burn. The doctor asks whether her husband knows that she is pregnant. She asks if it is "too late to do anything about it", and the doctor replies "I didn't hear that question" (any kind of abortion would have been illegal in Britain at the time).
Back at the market, Ma Tanner turns up, in town to take care of her dead husband's grave. Almost a caricature of a cheerful working-class elderly woman, it's obvious that Jimmy has lots of affection and admiration for her. She was once his landlady, and lent him the capital to start the sweet-stall business. They go into a pub for a drink, and Alison comes in. Jimmy does not fail to notice Alison recoiling from Ma Tanner's affectionate hug; the gulf in social class between the two women is enormous and, in the context of the time, it's very plausible that Alison would react that way. Alison is trying to tell Jimmy about her pregnancy but cannot get his attention. Instead she tells Cliff (this scene, originally a continuation of the ironing board scene, is here played at the market).
A brief scene by Ma Tanner's husband's grave continues the theme of Jimmy and Ma Tanner's affection for each other. She asks him what he wants in life and he replies "Everything. Nothing".
Back at the flat, Alison is taking a phone call from her friend Helena, an actress who's in town for an audition and looking for somewhere to crash. Alison invites her to take over Cliff's room, and warns Cliff that Jimmy really hates Helena and all she stands for. The conflict to come is made very obvious.
Jimmy returns, apologises for the burn, and plays one of the only two loving scenes between him and Alison. They play out a game pretending to be stuffed-toy bears and squirrels, and seem to be on the point of behaving like a normal married couple, when in walks Helena. Jimmy immediately attacks her verbally, but she shrugs it off as though it's just an act.
In several scenes at the flat and back at the jazz club, the expository dialogue from Act II of the play is played out. Alison describes Jimmy as a knight in shining armour, and Helena says "You've got to fight him". Over an afternoon meal, Jimmy's most cruel and vituperative attacks on both women take place.
At the market, a sub-plot is introduced that was never even referred to in the play. A new stall-owner, an Indian immigrant called Kapoor (played by an actor of the same name) sets up a stall selling cut-price clothing. Kapoor is victimised by everyone except Jimmy and Cliff and, in a later scene, the market inspector Hurst revokes his licence. Kapoor is literally forced out of business by the prejudice of 'respectable' English people — a not improbable plot device in a portrayal of 1950s England.
Alison goes to a theatre where Helena is rehearsing a particularly nauseating play. Jimmy and Cliff crash in and disrupt the rehearsal, taking over the stage and improvising their silly music-hall act.
At another Sunday tea-table scene, Alison announces that she's going to church with Helena, and Jimmy's scorn and anger reach a new peak. When Jimmy leaves to take a phone call, Helena says "I'm going to call your father and get him to take you home". Alison agrees that she will go. Coming downstairs on the way to church, the women run into Jimmy. The phone call brought the news that Ma Tanner is in hospital after a stroke, and not expected to live. Jimmy says that of course he will go to her, and begs Alison to go with him. Instead, she marches out with Helena.
A brief scene follows of Jimmy with Ma Tanner on her deathbed, in the public ward of a hospital.
Back at the attic, we see Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The playwright allows the Colonel to come across as quite a sympathetic character, albeit totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). "You're hurt because everything's changed," Alison tells him, "and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same."
Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself but obliged to stay another day by the run of her play. Alison leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves himself, saying "I hope he stuffs it up your nostrils". Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a "goodbye" note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. He now learns for the first time that Alison is expecting a baby, and although he proclaims that he doesn't care it's clear that he's taken aback. However, his tirade continues. They first come to physical blows, and then suddenly, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed (the dramatic Act II curtain in the original play).
Two external scenes follow before we get to the Act III material. First, a scene of Jimmy in the graveyard at Ma Tanner's burial, searching in vain for any token of sympathy from Alison. Then a scene in Helena's dressing room at the theatre, as Jimmy complains of Alison's callousness and protests the unjust ways of the world in general.
Now comes the scene that repeats the opening scene of the play — a dismal Sunday morning but this time it's Helena at the ironing board. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison in Act 1. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the men get into another music hall comedy routine. This time the horseplay reveals a half-written letter from Helena to Alison, referring to an ongoing correspondence between them. Helena tears it up.
A scene is inserted in the garden of the Redfern family home. Alison is very pregnant, and some remarks indicate that the pregnancy may be precarious. Alison's mother passes by and has one line of dialogue.
At the market, Cliff announces that he's decided to strike out on his own. Jimmy is visibly disappointed but doesn't try to stop him, only later advising him to "try washing your socks". Jimmy and Helena go to the railway station to see Cliff off — an interesting period scene complete with an authentic steam locomotive of the era. Jimmy reveals his affection for Cliff and tells him he is worth "ten Helenas" to him. When Jimmy and Helena go into the station bar for a drink, they discover Alison sitting disconsolately there. Jimmy snaps over his shoulder "Friend of yours to see you" and abruptly leaves.
The remaining scenes, originally set in the claustrophobic attic flat, are played out at the train station amidst atmospheric steam, smoke, and condensation from the actors' breath in the cold. Helena realises that what she's done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave.
The screenplay ends with a major surprise -- a highly sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive the old game of bears and squirrels, and we are left to assume that they live, if not happily, at least in a state of truce in the class warfare, ever after.
Osborne insisted, against resistance from Saltzman, that Richardson was the right man to direct the film. He had directed the original theatrical production but had no track record in feature films at all at that time. In fact, the original backers, J. Arthur Rank, pulled out of the deal because of the choice of director.
Saltzman and Richardson between them persuaded Richard Burton to take on the title role, at a much lower fee than his accustomed Hollywood payoff. History does not record what Kenneth Haigh, who had created the role, thought of this. The idea of getting Nigel Kneale to extend the play into a screenplay is credited to the influential theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (who was in large part responsible for the incredible success of the play). Osborne was relieved not to have to do the job and handed over story rights for a mere ₤2,000.
Some of the minor casting is of historical interest. The part of the doctor was specially created for George Devine, the artistic director of the English Stage Company and the one man to whom Osborne most owed his success. Glen Byam Shaw, a long-time collaborator of Devine's (they created the Young Vic Company together) was handed the role of Colonel Redfern. Two other members of the English Stage Company, Nigel Davenport and Alfred Lynch, were given tiny roles as barflies who attempt to pick up Alison and Helena in the railway station bar. Both went on to have brilliant careers.