screened Wednesday April 13 2008 on Warner DVD in Brooklyn, NY
Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell’s follow-up to the infamous If… (TSPDT #567) stars McDowell as a fresh-faced young Candidean stumbling through a picaresque that sprawlingly catalogs the abuses and absurdities of all corners of 70s British society: provincial philistines staging miscegenation sex shows; scientists grafting pig parts to human guinea pigs; and a military industrial alliance enabling genocide overseas. Indeed, the only institution that seems to be depicted favorably is the prison where McDowell is indoctrinated into Marxist utopianism, only to be mauled upon his release by the homeless people he seeks to serve. Heavy on incident and yet somehow vague in insight, David Sherwin’s screenplay seems to depend heavily on the audience taking its wry depictions of widespread dystopia at face value to attain an aura of verity. For his part Anderson maintains a snarkily buoyant tone to the proceedings, aided by Alan Price’s running commentary song score and various metacinematic gestures to keep things teasingly playful, such as casting actors in multiple roles and having Price and his band appear midway. The finale involves a casting session with McDowell’s character for the very film in which he just starred, climaxing into a New Agey epiphany followed by a dance-a-long precursor to the ending of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The performances by the multi-tasking ensemble are uniformly convincing in conveying a societal landscape of alluring menace; watching them it’s easy to be caught up in the skill by which they inhabit and skewer their roles, though the lingering feeling of cynicism following the proceedings may wear differently on a given viewer.
Want to go deeper?
First and foremost, this impressive fan page by Alex D. Thrawn spills over with content on the film: the script from a deleted scene; list of filming locations; excerpts from Lindsay Anderson’s production diary; transcript of Malcolm McDowell’s introduction to the film at the 2002 Film Society of Lincoln Center McDowell retrospective; and much, much more.
The gradations of sham and corruption and the quirky contours of modern society, as revealed in the epic wanderings of Lindsay Anderson’s modern Candide/Everyman (Malcolm McDowell). Mick Travers (now Travis), the vicious public school of If . . . behind him, learns the bitter lesson of how to play the game for all it may (or may not) be worth in this valiant, comic, yet quietly sad three-hour journey to a kind of wisdom. Fuzzy in its particulars, the film makes up for it with standout performances from Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, and Arthur Lowe.
– Don Druker, The Chicago Reader
Because Mr. Anderson is much more bold and free as a director than Mr. Sherwin is inventive as a social satirist, “O Lucky Man!” always promises to be much more stimulating and funny than it ever is. Staying with it through its almost three-hour running time becomes increasingly nerve-racking, like watching superimposed images that never synchronize. The result does not match the ambition of the intention. The wit is too small, too perfunctory, for the grand plan of the film and the quality of the production itself…The real star, however, is Alan Price, best known here for “The Animals,” who wrote the film’s fine score and sings at various intervals during the movie, either on the soundtrack or in scenes shot in a recording studio. The songs, which more or less punctuate the individual chapters of Mick’s odyssey, provide the wit and sense of surprise that are lacking in Sherwin’s screenplay. It is funny when Price sings cheerfully, “Sell, sell, sell—sell everything you stand for”—when Mick starts out on the road, since Mick, quite obviously, stands for very little.
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 14 1973
This nearly overwhelming film is part epic allegory, part lighthearted Brechtian morality play and part three-ring circus. It is the saga of a young English coffee salesman (Malcolm McDowell), a description as precise and inadequate as saying that Gulliver’s Travels concerns the misadventures of a ship’s surgeon. In O Lucky Man! Lindsay Anderson calls on all the resources of the cinema, challenges them and extends them. The movie is brash, eclectic, innovative, deeply personal and elusive—all at once. It is a transcendent movie; perhaps even a great one.Besides the direct presence of Price and his musicians, an idea that appears to derive directly from the stage and Anderson’s considerable work in the theater over the past decade, the very rhythm of O Lucky Man! is unique, with scenes bridged by blank black frames and sometimes interrupted or punctuated by them. Without being fussy, the film has a reserved beauty, a nearly voluptuous grace, like the work of John Ford, a director Anderson especially admires (and whose picture hangs on the wall of the warden’s office during a prison sequence).Anderson’s taste in satire is sometimes a shade too obvious, and he shares with Ford a sentimentality that can play him false, but the very impact and size of the movie (about three hours long) seem to dwarf even its mistakes. What will be remembered is not the occasional false steps but the prevailing tone of high spirits and ferocious humor in such scenes as a sex show behind a respectable hotel, or a trade meeting with an emerging African nation that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying.
– Jay Cocks, Time, June 18 1973
A modern Pilgrim’s Progress, with Malcolm McDowell (reprising the name, if not the character, of the hero of If…) as the young man in search of fame and the better things of life, O Lucky Man! is a disappointment. Lacking the specificity of either If… or This Sporting Life, it’s an undisciplined (at nearly three hours long) humanist shriek of anger at what ‘They’ are doing to ‘Us’, lashing out wildly without purpose. The result is a film that approaches its material not in the manner of a Swift or an Orwell, but as the Carry On team might under the temporary influence of surrealism. In short, all puff and no thought. None the less interesting, with Alan Price‘s songs punctuating and informing the film’s episodic action.
Though its particular brand of deadpan comedy is unmistakably British, O Lucky Man! has a plainspoken surrealism that owes much to Luis Buñuel; both knew that a sense of detachment was the best way to keep the outrageous goings-on in balance. Perhaps Anderson’s most inspired touch was to commission Alan Price, late of The Animals, to perform original songs that tie the vignettes together and act as a sort of Greek chorus that comments on the action. Price’s songs also help make sense of McDowell’s passive hero, who gets jerked around so much by the hands of fate that three hours later, it’s hard to tell whether he’s learned anything.
– Scott Tobias, The Onion A/V Club
Those royalty checks from “House of the Rising Sun” made an impression on Alan Price, because in the Alan Price Set days he began composing his own songs, inspired in part by the many Randy Newman covers he recorded in the 60s. A Newman-esque whip-smart irony informs these songs, from the snarky “Sell Sell Sell” (“Sell sell sell sell everything you stand for”) to the paranoid music-hall soft-shoe “Look Over Your Shoulder” (“Don’t forget boy / look over your shoulder / ‘Cos there’s always someone coming after you-OO / La la la la”) to the bitter cha-cha-cha “Justice” (“We all want justice / But you’ve got to have the money to buy ii-IT”). There’s small comfort to be wrung out of life, but if you keep your goals VERY LOW and your wits about you, you just might survive – or as the anthemic title track puts it, “When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell / You’ll be a lucky man.” I was a college student, it was the early 70s — this philosophy spoke to me.
– Holly A. Hughes, The Song In My Head Today
What really holds the picture together is Anderson’s tone: snarky, sarky, scabrously sour, pitilessly misanthropic, bluntly Swiftian in his extremity and excess. He can barely suppress a sardonic sneer when he appears (as himself) during the glibly self-referential finale, in which Travis is “cast” as the hero in Anderson’s new project O Lucky Man! This process involves Travis/McDowell being brusquely smacked across the head with the script by Anderson… and while the audience may feel like they’ve endured a similar kind of assault, we, like Travis, realise we’re better off for the experience. The nightmare may not be quite over – but at least we’ve woken up, and are finally smelling the coffee.
Cambridge University Camera Journal: “O Lucky Man! , a sequel of sorts to If…., is an attempt, within the narrative bounds of an entertainment film, to achieve the cinematic equivalent of Brecht’s ‘Total Theatre’. Its breadth and scale are breathtaking.”
Jeffrey Anderson: McDowell is a perfect foil for all the insanity, charging ahead with his particular brand of confidence and inexperience, while Anderson seems to luxuriate in the bizarre mood and ample running time.
Inside a Dog: With its bizarre comedy and its way of progressing from one anecdote to the next only to seemingly forget what has come before, it feels like a direct forerunner to the Python films.
Robert Smith, The Lumiere Reader: “the purest Anderson vision of the world, one where authority is unworthy of trust, but where the creative community will always provide a little shelter from the storm, if only for a little while.”
Geoff Pevere, The Toronto Star: While the movie’s sweepingly shaggy satirical structure often seems less intentional than improvised, there’s no escaping its sheer, crazy ambitiousness.
Christopher Null, Film Critic.com
Synopsis at Britmove.co.uk
Vadim Rizov, The Reeler, on the Mick Travis Trilogy: “Over a 14-year span, Anderson went from being one of England’s boldest, most-acclaimed directors to a hard-to-finance bet, but that didn’t stop him from trying to allegorically diagnose and decry every perceived weakness in the country.”
About the Warner DVD
Warner has done a very admirable job with Anderson’s modern classic. The 3 hour film is spread over 2 dual-layered discs (approx. 1.5 hours on each) – anamorphically and progressively transferred. The track is an unnecessarily bumped 5.1 and is supported by optional English (both STD and CC) and French subtitles. I can see some good film grain (I’m sure its smooth grain and not digital noise) – detail and contrast are strong while colors seem somewhat muted (although this may be inherent in the film stock used). Overall image quality and audio (very consistent and clear) are both excellent.
Supplements include an optional commentary by Malcolm McDowell, David Sherwin and Alan Price. It’s extremely informative – McDowell takes the lead and he is always interesting (he even talks of Kubrick’s influence on the film) but I was also impressed by Price’s knowledge – Sherwin sounds quite old but his recall was adequate bringing up salient points. This is a long film and there are many gaps where the narrative (or songs) are left to run. Each take turns for a while re-introducing themselves and taking the lead as if they were entering the room again. I think Anderson aficionados will enjoy it though (NOTE: We strongly recommend checking out Peter Hoskin’s new article located HERE).There are also two featurettes – O Lucky Man! – Innovations in Entertainment on disc one is short but on disc 2 we have O Lucky Malcolm! on Malcolm McDowell’s career – it runs a full 1.5 hours and has input from the man, his friends, colleagues and others. NOTE: This latter extra is also available on the new 2-disc A Clockwork Orange Special Edition (and hi-def versions of that film).A great representative of 70’s cinema with Anderson’s unique talents shining through. “Masterpiece’ is an appropriate term to use with this film. The supplements are a strong addition and we give this a very high recommendation! For the price this is an essential purchase.
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
The film has been given a colourful anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer so lifelike that threads of grey can already be seen swimming through our boyish hero’s hair, and the mono soundtrack offers equally vivid playback of the bass and drums in Price’s band. Regrettably, Warner has disrupted the film (on a dual-layer disc, no less) with a disc break, and it’s a lousy one. Now we cut abruptly to black in the midst of a scene, though a chapter card follows less than two minutes later. The audio commentary edits together often delightful reminiscences by McDowell, Price and Sherwin; with a film of this duration, some quiet time is understandable, but with three participants, this track should be wall-to-wall and it’s not. A moderator was badly needed, not only to prompt discussion but to prompt further discussion; each participant embarks on stories that beg for more details or simply go off the rails.The promotional short O Lucky Man! Innovations in Entertainment (4:45) is worthwhile for its rare documentary footage of an elaborate camera dolly rigged to parallel Mick’s uphill escape from a Quatermass-like top-secret military installation, as well as footage of the ‘wrap party’ finale that makes it all look rather less spontaneous and more rehearsed than one would like to dream it was. O Lucky Malcolm, a feature documentary directed by Jan Harlan (Stanley Kubrick – A Life in Pictures), is also included in Warner’s new SD and HD sets of A Clockwork Orange, but is most at home here. It gives us a more satisfying account of McDowell’s work and friendship with Anderson (though it’s a bit skimpy on Britannia Hospital), but just as importantly, it fetes him as an actor and human being in a manner that feels long overdue and richly deserved.
– Tim Lucas, Sight and Sound
BFI Screen Online biography of Anderson
In a 1958 essay titled “Get out and Push,” Lindsay Anderson expressed his approach to working in the cinema. The way Anderson, the individual, approached working in the cinema paralleled the world view he put forth in feature films: the individual must examine the basis of the system within which he finds himself, “the motives that sustain it and the interests that it serves.” It is the responsibility of the individual to actively seek a new self-definition beyond the confines of the established system; the individual cannot look for change to come from or through any outside authority—political, social, or spiritual. This theme is consistently present in Anderson’s feature films.
– Marie Saeli, Film Reference.com
America’s moviegoers and critics have taken “O Lucky Man!” to their hearts. Well, not quite all of America’s critics. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, for example, liked Anderson’s new effort less than he liked “If…,” and a lot less than he liked “This Sporting Life,” the searing but conventionally structured movie about a brawling, pathetically inarticulate rugby player which established Anderson as a major cinematic talent a decade ago.But Vincent Canby is not the first local critic to have annoyed Anderson. As a matter of fact, Anderson is a lucky man to have had “O Lucky Man!” reviewed in the New Yorker by the passionately favorable Penelope Gilliat, instead of Pauline Kael. “Pauline Kael is such a caricature of the journalistic bitch,” says Anderson, allowing a trace of pique to surface. “Her reputation as a critic of intellectual distinction is totally unmerited, and I’m simply amazed that no one has taken her on in print.”Anderson – not exactly a shrinking violet – seems more than willing to take on Miss Kael, in or out of print. “When she came to a screening of ‘If…,’ I realized for the first time how badly a so-called serious critic can behave. I invited her for a drink afterward, she accepted, and her first remark was, ‘I was on the West Coast when “This Sporting Life” opened, so it wasn’t until I came East that I realized what a failure it was.’ I was astonished that she would say this to me, and I thought, ‘Either I accept this sort of camp fencing, or I speak up.’ So I said, ‘Tell me, why do you make a remark like that? Do you think it’s clever, or are you trying to throw me off my guard?’ Instead of facing up to my question, she phonied and fluttered and said, ‘Oh, I hope you didn’t take offense! I didn’t mean anything by it.’ You see, the more vicious a critic is in print, the more cowardly in person.”
– From a 1973 article and interview with Anderson by Guy Flatley
All his films, except ”The Whales of August,” which was a terminal disaster, fascinate and infuriate because they could have been better. Incisive and exciting as they frequently are, scathing indictments of stupidity and greed and dishonor, they are nonetheless the work of an artist handicapped by his own passion. Anderson wanted to use his talent to proclaim the faults in his world, to sing the human and humane, but his impatience both with that society and with the obstacles to his talent led him to a sort of uncontrolled vengeance on the film art itself, a destructive imperiousness. Just one instance: ”If . . .” is in color with sections in black and white. When colleagues on the picture asked him to explain, Anderson, presumably intoxicated with one of his rare grants of power, replied that he did not have to explain: he would just shoot some scenes in black and white ”when I feel like it.” So now ”If . . .” is forever a furiously satirical-poetic attack on English public-school inanities that is pointlessly mixed in texture.
– Stanley Kaufmann, reviewing Gavin Lampert’s Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, The New York Times
Despite Anderson’s daring as a director, his recently published letters and [Gavin] Lambert’s biography show a tormented man who struggled with his own sexuality. He tended to fall in love with his leading men, including Richard Harris, Albert Finney, and Malcolm McDowell, all of whom were heterosexual, married, and unattainable. His closest associates have speculated that his life was, for the most part, a celibate one. His films, in which homoerotic elements are often presented in a violent or disturbing manner, became the outlet for the desires he could not express in life.
– Patricia Juliana Smith, GLBTQ
“Gavin’s thing about Lindsay,” says McDowell, “was always, ‘Why doesn’t he just come out? Why doesn’t he just get himself fucked? Lindsay needs to be buggered!’ Course, he’d say it to me – but he’d never say it to Lindsay! But Gavin said Lindsay never would have made If … if he hadn’t been exactly what he was. Because he was this pent-up creature, very sardonic, and a very suppressed human being. And he had that very English thing, he hated the English, but of course, he was English, more English than anyone I’ve ever known. Lindsay could only have come out of his particular kind of pain. But you never saw this because he was very defensive, which made him laceratingly lethal. He could smell bullshit from miles away and if you tried to bullshit him, well …” McDowell mimics a series of rapier slashes in the air, bringing Flashman and Mick Travis to mind for a moment.
Lindsay was honestly my best friend who wasn’t a contemporary. I never looked at him as a mentor, and I don’t really like the term, but I suppose he was. I knew that if there was ever any apologising to be done, it would probably have to be from me. That was the price of the relationship.He was gay, but he was a celibate homosexual. All the people that he loved were unattainable because they were heterosexual. I didn’t really know that he was gay, and I wasn’t going to ask him because it wasn’t my business. He never, in any way, made a pass at me, although he took an enormous interest in me as a person, which I suppose had homosexual overtones to it. But sex was never an issue.
– Malcolm McDowell, The Guardian, September 3 2004
Biography and filmography at Film Reference.com