The film industry is, with regrettably few exceptions, a b.s. industry run by b.s. people — gushing publicists who ooze an oily charm, fey popinjay journalists who think bitchiness is criticism, eccentric film buffs devoted to trivia and esoterica, would-be magnates with cash-register minds who salivate at the sound of money, twitty stars (who usually look lost without
scripts to feed them lines), pompous directors: it’s a leper’s house of neurotic nitwits. Some exceptions: Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Lindsay Anderson (to name my immediate favorites) who share the trait of standing apart from the hypocrisy and nonsense of show business, while nevertheless proving themselves to be masters of the film medium.
With the arrival of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, it’s time to count one’s blessings. It’s a piercing, badly needed satire on the shammy dreams of modern society. Unlike Anderson’s earlier features This Sporting Life (1963) and the immensely successful if . . . (1968), O Lucky Man! isn’t instantly accessible or ( although friends tell me otherwise) likable; it’s too experimental to be flawless. But it passes the best test one can make of films: it goes on growing in the mind and memory involuntarily, touching one in odd moments of the day, intruding upon other matters, sometimes with a pop-flash of illumination, lingering and building until one says, a good film, a superb film, all right then a great film. Then comes the itch to see it again.
The underlying reason for Malcolm McDowell’s success in recent years in if ..., A Clockwork Orange, and now, O Lucky Man!, apart from having the perspicacity and luck to work with brilliant directors, is that on each occasion he has further defined what it means to be young — and male (none of his roles could have female equivalents. Alice and her droogettes? Ridiculous) — in the present era. As Kubrick’s Alex, with his cocky bowler, and false eyelash on one eye, he was winsomely malevolent (as indeed psychopaths frequently, cunningly, are); as Mick Travis in O Lucky Man! he looks as if he stepped down from one of those Hire - A - Student billboards filled with fresh-scrubbed faces and intent, eager eyes which government publicists hope is the look of the future. The life of a model citizen is, of course, shot through with a full quotient of irony. To survive in life it is more important that Jack be nimble and quick than that he be good and obedient.
The film is cast in the Dr. Strangelove mold with all the characters pitched slightly higher and madder than usual, in a story that uses comic surrealism to make us see the pathology of everyday life. In its briskly plotted, nearly three-hour running time the film checks off, in a series of penetrating vignettes, modern science, religion, big business, political philosophies — any and all human movements that try to impose a ruthless
will, a preconceived scheme, upon the external world. The film tackles too much by far, but better that than the usual slim pickings of purely mercenary movies. Satire of this kind is cleansing, especially if you’re ripe for some personal changes.
Most of the cast other than Malcolm McDowell play multiple roles in the film, the best known being Sir Ralph Richardson and Rachel Roberts. Many others from the casts of if .. . and A Clockwork Orange are on hand (Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne, Mary Macleod, and Vivian Pickles deserve particular mention) giving even the smallest roles full measure of British theatre training. In the excellence of its acting, cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek (who did if . . . and Slaughterhouse Five) and music by Alan Price (who has composed songs that may need what the trade calls “cover versions” to be truly popular, but manages to write mischievous lyrics and ingratiating melodies quite as if Cole Porter were still alive, and a rock musician) O Lucky Man! cannot be faulted. This is the richest and most fascinating film we’re likely to see this year.
The Hireling would have killed them in the Thirties and Forties, and would probably be enshrined as a “classic” along with Greta Garbo’s Camille and Bette Davis’s performance as Mildred in Of Human Bondage, among others. Proof that this kind of picture can still floor some people: it shares the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prize this year with Scarecrow. It’s based on a novel by the late L. P. Hartley (who wrote The Go-Between — a better book, a better film) and stars Sarah Miles in her most memorable performance since Joseph Losey’s The Servant a decade ago, and Robert Shaw (A Man For All Seasons), who is never less than serviceable. The time is after World War I wherein Lady Franklin (Miles) lost both her husband and her mind. After being gradually restored to the bloom of health, beauty and nobility by the tender friendship of her chauffeur Leadbetter (Shaw) — who manages for the longest time to keep his lower-class sexuality in check and then one drunken, impassioned night blows it — the Lady is required to reject her unsuitable suitor and he bashes up the Rolls crying “Rule Britannia!” with a broken heart. It is beautifully photographed in England’s Ascot and west country and directed by Alan Bridges in a slow, moody style that does make the tawdry story almost seductive.
John Hofsess is a Canadian film director and critic
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