Farewell to Michael Winner, the Underrated Genius of British Cinema 30 October 1935 – 21 January 2013
(I've been behind on finishing my review of Pete Townshend's "Who I Am" whilst caught up in raging "Django Unchained" euphoria -seeing it for the third time tomorrow-but I am remiss in not honouring this great man's passing two weeks ago so here we go.)
If Ken Russell is the British Fellini then Michael Winner is the DeSica of 60s and early 70s England. Both men proudly referenced Fellini in their work but it was Winner that stayed closer to the non-surreal and everyday comedy of errors and romance when Ken went on to out -Fellini Fellini with "The Boyfriend", "Dance of The Seven Veils" , "Mahler" and "The Devils". Both men used a family of actors, actresses and crew (Russell for his entire fifty plus year career). Both men were also flamboyant food and wine loving raconteurs making them "honorary Italians" in my book (and as an Italian myself I should know!)
Upon leaving for Hollywood to make action films like "Death Wish" and "Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood", Mr. Winner left behind a body of work as boldly artistic as any of the great British directors easily making him the most underrated one of the lot. The irony that Oliver Reed did his finest work with both Mr.Winner and Ken is not lost on me. Both men were able to stand up to "His Reedness", showcase his erotic beauty and place him perfectly within the physical scope of the photogenic landscapes that all three loved so much; England. Like a virtual lock of hair, my direct tweets from Mr. Winner about his films are something I will always treasure.
Both "The System" (1964) and "I'll Never Forget Whatisname" (1967) are the two films I watched the night Michael Winner bid us farewell. The following day I watched "Hannibal Brooks" (1969) which is his transitional film to Hollywood as an action director. While Ken made the men (in Raquel Welch's words) "turn around" and let their penises swing for all to see, it was Winner who for the first time in modern cinema made a man cry in anguish when he used for sex and dumped in "The System". He was also the first to imply a woman receiving oral sex (INFW) and enjoying it immensely; a land mark moment for the sexual revolution and the MPPA. Both The System and INFW are monuments to the sexual and cultural mores which were breaking down and rebuilding at the time yet Roger Vadim's "And God Created Woman" gets all the credit. With later controversial films like "The Nightcomers" (1971) Winner is thee unsung hero of pushing sexual boundaries in mainstream major studio backed films. That alone is worthy of it's own separate post.
INFW is by far and away the most intelligent film about the swinging 60s and also the most dazzling. "Smashing Time" is more colourful (just barely), "Magic Christian" more hedonistic for certain. Lindsay Anderson's "...If" more socially concious and "Performance" more artistic (again just barely) but INFW is by far and away the most honest film about swinging London. Standing as a veritable time capsule of the era. Shoot that one into space to explain London in the 60s and you'll be covered. Many great montage sequences of post war 60's Britain including some postcard shots of Cambridge complete with Emily Choir style "oooo woooo" background singers and an astonishing "advert" that Ollie's ego maniacal character Quint creates to give the middle finger to the advertising establishment at a swank London awards show. The advert is still shocking today in ANY context proves to be a smash however. The fetching Carol White (rest in peace) is brilliant as the secretary who squanders her self worth on Quint while Orson Welles plays Jonathan Lute, Quint's conniving and lovingly sardonic boss. Look for Winner perennials Harry Andrews, Frank Finlay and Norman Rodway and countless iconic Swinging London locations (Robert Fraser's Gallery, Biba, The Troubadour, Battersea power station, Soho, Mayfair etc)
Winner and Reed's first major film The System (aka The Girl Getters) may be my most favourite of the lot because to watch it is to go back in time to the seaside era of post war Britain which is an era that I hear so much about. Torquay is proper seaside as well over two hours drive from London and on the far southwest coast. Great film shot in black and white with beautiful glittering shots of the beach, delightful music and Oliver Reed at his freshest playing the very handsome young local photographer (Tinker) who's on the pull for townie girls, land ladies and even tourist girls on holiday. Jane Merrow is also divine as the shapely upper class model who's father owns an estate in town and who wants to remain wholly unattached while enjoying her sexuality. I kept wanting to be both characters: the local photog with loads of friends and the beautiful buxom teenage model with her entire life ahead of her. Surely this could be remade?
Hannibal Brooks with the fantastic Michael J Pollard (who still looks great today) and Lucy the Elephant is Winner's last cinematography love letter to Europe before eventually becoming an ex pat Hollywood director. Making mainstream Hollywood films like "The Mechanic", "Death Wish" and "The Sentinel" (watch out for Beverly D'Angelo going 'solo' in a leotard) and his notorious remake of "The Big Sleep" saw flair and usually ticket sales but nothing as heartfelt as these early masterpieces. I give him full credit for making money and taking care of himself though. (The amount of unfair shit thrown at Michael Winner for being successful is simply shameful.) "Hannibal Brooks" delights though it is a nail biter for an large mammal defender like myself. It is a transitional film in the sense that it features many intense action sequences and distressing situations (even for a standard war film) not seen in Winner's earlier London/UK centric work yet the love of lush scenery (this time Europe) is still apparent. Stunning cinematography-especially of the Alps and the authentic Germany and Swiss peoples. It was on the set of "Hannibal Brooks" that Ollie, loyal to Winner's judgement, was visited by Ken and offered "The Debussy film". Not wanting to "step down to television" Winner convinced him to work with Ken and the rest is history.
"The Jokers" (1967) , a delightful film, can't be left out of Winner's early oeuvre nor can Francis Lai's unparalleled scores for HB and INFW. "The Jokers" stars Michael Crawford as an upper class Army reject and Ollie as his brother who hatch a plot to steal the Crown Jewels. Sadly the film has ver had any kind of release, even if I'm not mistaken, VHS and is only available on You Tube but it is well worth a watch. Opening music is fab, sitar flavoured dramatic booming brass. More "Swinging London" - the film makers great use of London locations rivals INFW. Included is a short sequence of Jezebel, a 1916 Dennis N-Type fire engine (still owned and run by the Royal College of Science Union at Imperial College London), the Tower of London (but of course) and loads of great shots of the West End. While Johnny Pearson is The Joker's soundtrack composer /God Francis Lai scored both INFW and Hannibal Brooks with some of the most poignant sounds ever.
I can go on and on and undoubtedly will create some kind of longer and more elaborate tribute to Mr. Winner one day but for now I'd like to ask all off you out there to see one of these earlier films and celebrate the man, the country of England and his genius.
Robert Michael Winner 1935-2013 Rest in peace.
God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens' heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen -Kaddish Jewish prayer