April 4, 2008

O Lucky Man!


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****½

In 1968, director Lindsay Anderson and star Malcolm McDowell teamed up for If..., about an old, rigid English boys school attempting to mold young minds with strict control, obedience and punishment. The film had moments of absurd comedy and of drama, moments of stark realism and of blatant non-realism. Flipping back and forth from black-and-white to color footage doesn't make it any easier to pinpoint. But when it opened in that turbulent year, it tapped directly into the mood of the time and became a phenomenon, a cultural landmark. McDowell played Mick Travis, a free spirit who slowly realizes that he can't quite fit in. In the end, he and his cohorts attempt to take over the school with firearms. McDowell became a star in his first movie role, with his James Dean-type physicality, fearless and entrancing. If his confident stride didn't hypnotize you, his gleaming dagger-sharp eyes will. (Just check out his memorable entrance, swathed in black with a black hat and scarf around his face.)

After a stop to play the lead role in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), McDowell approached Anderson about working together again. Anderson told him that good scripts don't grow on trees and that he needed to write his own, so McDowell concocted a yarn out of his own life story (even though he was only thirty). The screenwriter David Sherwin wrote the final script, and O Lucky Man! (1973) was born. It's as audacious as anything made in the 1970s, running three hours without much of a plot; it divided audiences to the same degree that If... united them.

Yet McDowell is still commanding; he once again plays Mick Travis, a promising young man who gets a job as a coffee salesman. His employment doesn't last long, however, as he soon begins following fate rather than any kind of plan. He's kidnapped and questioned, he signs up for a bizarre medical experiment (but escapes) and meets the beautiful, carefree daughter (a very young Helen Mirren) of a sinister entrepreneur (Ralph Richardson). In the end, a homeless mob attacks him and he auditions for a part in a movie. The satirical point is that Mick's naked ambition to rise in society is beaten down by society itself. Most actors play more than one role, as if their re-appearances help drive home this idea. (He meets the same roadblocks again and again.) 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. Alan Price, the keyboardist for The Animals, appears as himself and plays several tunes.

Warner Home Video has released this movie on a wonderful two-disc DVD set in conjunction with its remastered A Clockwork Orange disc. O Lucky Man! is broken up over both discs and contains a commentary track by McDowell, Alan Price and screenwriter Sherwin. There is also a vintage featurette and a trailer. Both this and the Clockwork Orange disc include the great new documentary "O Lucky Malcolm!," directed by Jan Harlan, who was Stanley Kubrick's brother-in-law and sometime producer and directed the feature-length Stanley Kubruck: A Life in Pictures (2001). Interviewing McDowell for that film, Harlan must have noted (as I did when I interviewed him) what a great, honest storyteller McDowell is and that he was deserving of his own film.

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Posted by cphillips at April 4, 2008 1:13 PM
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