O LUCKY MAN!
***½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A
starring Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe
screenplay by David Sherwin
directed by Lindsay Anderson
NEVER APOLOGIZE: A PERSONAL VISIT WITH LINDSAY ANDERSON
**½/**** Image C Sound B-
directed by Mike Kaplan
by Jefferson Robbins As magnetic an actor as he is, Malcolm McDowell is often the acted-upon. Alex DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange seeks to master his chosen domains by force, but once he finds himself in the larger circuitry of the world, he's really just an implement of others' power. Is Caligula the prime mover of his vulgar Roman Empire, or merely its best expression? And so on. It was only in his later career that lazy filmmakers and casting agents made McDowell a shorthand for sinister worldliness; today, he arrives onscreen and you know who he is. Time was, he was a squirrelly, intense audience surrogate, Everymannish but beautiful in a way that was at once fragile and sharp. Asked to identify McDowell's essential quality as an actor, director Lindsay Anderson told him, "You're rather dangerous." For good or ill, the movie industry has looked no farther than that in the way it's handled McDowell for the last thirty years.
McDowell's stardom was as unlikely as anything that happens in 1973's O Lucky Man!, his second collaboration with Anderson. For that matter, it's as unlikely as the events of If..., his first, from 1968. Dream logic abounds in both, and McDowell's characters have always been at home living half in fantasy--sort of like an actor. Pairing Warner's 2007 DVD release of O Lucky Man! with that of McDowell's one-man show Never Apologize: An Evening With Lindsay Anderson makes for an exhausting but occasionally worthwhile excursion into the creative space of one of film's most oddly-positioned major performers--a man gainfully used in at least two acknowledged masterpieces and, in his own words, "lots of crap."
O Lucky Man!--from a screenplay by Anderson's favoured writer David Sherwin, based on a story McDowell spun from his own life--explores British society from high to low to fringe, with the star as Mick Travis (the same character name Sherwin gave McDowell's rebellious public school boy in If...), a wide-eyed striver who seems not to have a thought in his head other than to "succeed." No matter that success is defined differently in the various strata where he finds himself. Peddling coffee to the hinterlands? Sure. Offering himself up for medical experiments? Why not? Carrying money to subjugate a Third World republic into a resort destination? A lark! Mick learns nothing from his peregrinations, fails or is set up for a fall at every turn, doesn't get the girl (Helen Mirren), adopts whatever ethos seems most advantageous, and doesn't recognize grace when it's presented to him. He encounters the same faces in different roles throughout, echoing and reflecting each other so that they become archetypal aspects, puppets of story. His landlady Mary Ball (Mary MacLeod) seduces him while he's on his rounds as a coffee salesman, then returns as a "Mary" figure offering him her breast to suckle, after he's survived what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. A corrupt provincial mayor (Arthur Lowe) resurfaces in blackface as an African dictator collaborating with English capitalists. The daft, oracular tailor (Ralph Richardson) who builds Mick a suit of gold is also the industry baron who offers to clothe him in the real thing, in exchange for his soul. And the band whose interstitial pop songs punctuate the action, led by composer-singer (and former member of The Animals) Alan Price, is the group of troubadours who rescue Mick from the side of the road as he flees his latest predicament.*
O Lucky Man! is Candide in '70s England as it shows a believer in the best of all possible worlds refusing to surrender his belief even as the world abuses him. It's absurd from top to bottom, so much so that the few instances of verisimilitude stand out as the weird parts. In If..., Anderson had a school vicar living in the headmaster's bureau drawer. This film is nothing but vicars popping out of bureaus. It's absurdity in pursuit of some goal, though--Mick fails almost entirely in the realms of material gain, when he's trying to better himself financially or (briefly, as an agitator for the homeless) help others achieve economic equality. He comes closest to happiness in the company of Mirren's Patricia, who first materializes as a groupie/muse to Price's band, but his ambition doesn't encompass a life among roving performers. At least, not at first--Mick has to be knocked about by capital for a while before he ventures fully into the arts, finally encountering Anderson himself as the director of the forthcoming film If..., now in pre-production. The movie eats its own tail in one grinning bite and becomes a tract in favour of Art over Commerce: As an actor, it implies, Mick Travis will affect the world in ways he never could as a coffee salesman, a test subject, a political fall guy, or a rabble-rouser. And he'll enter this world by the same superficial route he used to enter the sales force...with a smile.
Upon watching McDowell's audition for If..., Sherwin wrote in his diary, "No chance, poor chap." To hear the tales from McDowell's Never Apologize, he wasn't up to speed on the script, and when fellow auditioner Christine Noonan followed her stage direction and slugged him, he became enraged. That unbidden savagery won him the part of passionate schoolboy Mick. Recorded onstage in 2006 at a junior-high auditorium in McDowell's current hometown of Ojai, California, the actor references personal memories and others' diaries in an appreciation of Anderson, the director who both launched his career as an actor and indulged his ambitions as a filmmaker. After an unfocused, off-the-cuff start in which he rather muffs the story of that fateful audition, McDowell charms and (most effectively) outs himself as a fabulous mimic. He speaks fluently in the voices of John Ford greeting Anderson from his deathbed, of Alan Price warning of the effects of hash brownies, of Warner studio head John Calley buttering McDowell up while they passed water at adjacent urinals, and of Sir John Gielgud in paroxysms on the set of Caligula ("I've never seen so much cock in all my life!").
Following If...'s Palme d'Or win at Cannes, Anderson goaded his star into writing his own script treatment, an autobiographical pastiche that served as the basis for O Lucky Man!. Their admiration was mutual, if fraught--McDowell identifies Anderson as "a celibate homosexual" who channelled his desires into creative relationships with his actors. "Of course, if I look back, all these spats we had--it was like a damn marriage," he says. It's a gossipy but admiring retrospective on the life of a filmmaker who runs the risk of being forgotten today, one who boasted an insight and a sense of satire not often displayed in comedies anymore. But McDowell seems to view the exercise as a commencement address instead of a stage show. It's obvious that little attention was paid to blocking, and McDowell holds the centre of the proscenium without trying to command the whole.
Warner's Two-Disc Special Edition of O Lucky Man! spreads the film across the two DVDs, partly due to its lengthy running time and partly due to a thick stack of supplementary material. The 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation is sourced from a seemingly clean print, barring a few flecks and the intermittent ghosts of cigarette burns when a reel change comes up. Upconversion to a Hi-Def monitor, of course, has its consequences, as the edges soften and grain becomes intrusive against some of the tweedier brown of Anderson's palette. Speaking of reels, the ninth one in sequence was dropped to trim the running time before initial release, and it's restored here. Image quality in this segment--centred on the suicide of a housewife character portrayed by Rachel Roberts, a favourite Anderson trouper who, sadly, really did go on to take her own life--coarsens dramatically, with blacks overflowing their boundaries all over the place. The sound is rendered in unassuming centre-channel Dolby, and I sort of love it for not trying to be something other than what it is. That clopping Foley work when Mick strides across a polished floor has the rat-a-tat of '60s/'70s cinema that I adore.
Extras-wise, O Lucky Man! is full to bursting, assembling the separately-recorded McDowell, Sherwin, and Price for a patchwork commentary track. "It's my favourite film that I've made, I think, because it's so ambitious," McDowell says. "Sometimes it doesn't quite make it, but at least it attempts." With gusto. Sherwin, charged with hammering McDowell's treatment into shape, inserted the recurring bit about crashed or destroyed cars with their radios still playing, and sold Anderson on the idea of repertory-style distribution of multiple parts among the cast. Price relates that Anderson discovered him while contemplating a documentary about his band, The Alan Price Set, then a successful touring ensemble. The script included breaks that called for original songs, acting as Greek chorus points within the narrative. "If you think about it, the film was an exaggerated documentary of the 1970s in England," Price says, astutely. "That's what we were picturing: the nervous breakdown of the United Kingdom."
Anderson agrees, in a five-minute featurette on Disc One called "O Lucky Man!: Innovations in Entertainment." "O Lucky Man! is a film about the real world," Anderson says, adding, "I think the world today is too complex and too mad and too bad for one to make a straight, serious comment." Much of this promotional piece concerns itself with documenting the closest thing O Lucky Man! has to an action scene: Mick's escape up a steep grade as a military installation detonates behind him. Although the finished sequence is shot so close that the effect is muted, the "explosions" that Mick flees from in a near-unbroken take look to be actual squibs and pyrotechnics, not strobe lights as I assumed. Maybe goes to show that for all his wry skill, Anderson was no action director.
On Disc Two, find the original trailer (3 mins.) plus Jan Harlan's O Lucky Malcolm! (76 mins.), a talking-heads documentary about the actor and his total output. (It recently cropped up again on the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray of A Clockwork Orange.) McDowell is a generous raconteur in this 2006 segment, holding forth on his own patio and in snatches from archival interviews, and his reminiscences are buttressed by input from family and collaborators: former wife Mary Steenburgen, still stunning, and their two grown children; directors Robert Altman, Mike Hodges, Tamar Simon Hoffs, and Edoardo Ponti; Stanley Kubrick's widow, Christiane; producer Mike Kaplan (who also orchestrated the taping of Never Apologize); and Deborah Kara Unger. The opening montage features shots from practically all of McDowell's Warner output, showcasing his aging from the slender threat of the Mod era to the great white eagle he's become. McDowell acknowledges the curse of a recognizable actor who loves to work ("I think one year I knocked off seven movies, and they were all bad") but points out that through that kind of messy prospecting you occasionally get a Gangster No. 1 or an I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. (The fact that McDowell lives in Ojai probably explains his lark of a cameo as a school principal in Easy A, which was filmed there.) Alas, anyone who's listened to the O Lucky Man! yakker or watched Never Apologize will have heard most of the stories and gossip herein, and the whole enterprise goes on too long.
Blacks--black stage dressing, black space beyond the footlights, McDowell's black jacket--predominate in the 1.33:1 "fullscreen" rendering of Never Apologize, shot on video with a modest camera set-up, and the transfer struggles to break through noisy compression and poor definition. As broadcast fodder for your standard-def public TV station, I'm sure it looks fine; an HD monitor murders it. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio serves just fine for what it does, letting you hear that one woman up front who cackles like a chicken at everything McDowell says. Postproduction looping stands out badly--the points where McDowell had to re-record his own monologue are obvious. Especially considering there are no extras, the $20 retail price feels a bit steep. Originally published: October 17, 2011.
*A Clockwork Orange, released two years earlier and already defining McDowell's career, comes in for some vicious tweakings: There's Mick opening his mouth to be fed liquor by a prostitute just as Alex DeLarge allows himself to be spoon-fed by the Minister; having his eyes pried open by a medical specialist; tumbling through a glass window to escape scientific torment; and being lashed to an electrified chair and taught shock-therapy avoidance of his own nature. (Comics-nerd interlude: The scene where a teacart lady comes through while Travis is interrogated was copped in the 1990s for Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles.") return