The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
By all logic, Richard Lester deserves consideration as one of the key filmmakers to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Over a career spanning 22 feature films, he has had a number of critical and commercial successes (including one that won the top prize at Cannes), his unique directorial style—shifting effortlessly from classical elegance to formally radical depending on the needs of the material—has influenced any number of filmmakers over the years (one notable fan, Steven Soderbergh, even collaborated with Lester on a book about his career, the must-read "Getting Away With It") and one of his films has gone on to be enshrined as one of the all-time greats in the history of the medium. And yet, for several reasons—the relatively low profile that he kept as a filmmaker even at the apex of his career, the high profile of the personalities that he worked with on many of his biggest hits, his inability to be pigeonholed as a single entity (not even in terms of his nationality—Lester's name has threatened to fade away in the minds of the movie-going public except as the guy who directed the first two films featuring The Beatles.
Hoping to reverse that trend and expose Lester's wide-ranging filmography to a new generation of moviegoers, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York has put together "Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast," a career retrospective running August 7-13 that will encompass 15 of his films—all but three of them being presented in 35mm and one actually serving as its long, long-delayed debut U.S. theatrical presentation—that illustrate how he was able to work in any number of genres with a wit and style that was uniquely his own. Although not a complete retrospective—some may question the absence of his first feature, the 1962 youth-oriented musical "It's Trad, Dad" or his superhero epics "Superman II" (1981) and "Superman III" (1983)—the films programmed here are all significant works and any true movie fan attending the program will be able to reacquaint themselves with some old favorites and perhaps get a chance to expose themselves to a couple that they somehow missed over the years.
Born in 1932, Lester, a child prodigy who entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 15, originally looked towards a career in clinical psychology but soon shifted his focus when he went to work for a local television station and rose through the ranks until he became a director. Believing that there were more opportunities in his newly-chosen career path in England than in the U.S., he transplanted to London and soon became a power in the industry, even becoming the star of the variety series "The Dick Lester Show." The show didn't last too long but the touches of surreal comedy on display attracted the attention of no less a figure than Peter Sellers, who hired Lester to direct a couple of "Goon Show" reunion specials and, more significantly, the groundbreaking 1959 short film "The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film," a silent comedy homage that earned an Oscar nomination for Live-Action Short as well as a chance for Lester to move into features with "It's Trad, Dad!" After the success of that film, Lester was hired to direct "Mouse on the Moon," a sequel to the 1959 hit "The Mouse That Roared" that saw the tiny country of Grand Fenwick stumble into the space race when their chief export, a dreadful wine that keeps exploding in the bottle, is actually a potent rocket fuel. Although not nearly as entertaining as the original, in no small part because of the absence of Sellers from the cast (though he was instrumental in getting Lester hired for the job), it did relatively well at the box office and it led to that film's producer, Walter Shenson, to ask Lester to direct his latest project, a film designed around a currently popular music group that had to be produced and distributed within a few months—before fans moved on to the next big thing.
The group, of course, was The Beatles, the film in question was, of course, "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and Lester's lightly exaggerated look at a day in the life of the newly-minted stars proved to be as groundbreaking and as sheerly entertaining as the music that it was designed to highlight. As I am assuming that anyone who has read this far into this piece has doubtlessly seen the film any number of times, I am going to assume that a long explanation of what makes it so special, even today, is unnecessary. Instead, I would like to give a little more attention to "Help," the 1965 reunion between Lester and the group, whose popularity had only grown in the interim. The film, a bit of surreal silliness involving the boys being pursued around the world by members of a cult after Ringo gets their sacred sacrificial ring stuck on his finger, has never had the best reputation among fans and critics alike, and watching a story about a group of murderous fanatics trying to kill one of the Beatles admittedly plays very differently now than it did a half-century ago. That said, I must confess that, while acknowledging every one of the earlier film's achievements, I actually prefer "Help" to its predecessor. From the first time I saw it as a young child, I fell in love with its cheerfully cartoonish nature and offbeat knockabout comedy beats (such as a tiger that can only be quelled by singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and the ending dedication to Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine) and the nuttiness Lester brought to the proceedings remains as infectious today as it did back then.
In between the two Beatles projects, Lester made "The Knack...and How to Get It," an adaptation of Ann Jellicoe's 1962 novel about the then-ascendant youth culture in London that focused on the competition that develops between three young man—shy schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford), womanizing Tolen (Ray Brooks) and the artistic Tom (Donal Donnelly)—to win the favors of the newly arrived and freshly liberated Nancy (Rita Tushingham). A relatively straightforward proposition on stage, Lester made stylistic changes to the material that pushed it even beyond what he accomplished in "A Hard Day's Night," including off-beat editing patterns, characters directly addressing the camera and a Greek chorus of older people commenting on the misadventures of the younger generation. When it was completed, Lester's bold formal experiment did not win many fans at first—Jellicoe reportedly hated what was done to her play and executives at United Artists, who had such a hit with "A Hard Day's Night," dismissed it as well and considered dumping it as the bottom half of double bills. Unexpectedly, it was entered into competition at that year's Cannes Film Festival and wound up winning the coveted Palme d'Or in the process, though it did not make much of a commercial impact in America. Today, the film is a little dated in parts but it still has an energy to it that is undeniable, and many of the things that it has to say about young male-female relationships are still painfully relevant today. (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that three of the most beautiful actresses to ever set foot in front of a movie camera make their big-screen debuts here—Charlotte Rampling, Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Birkin.)
Despite the critical and commercial accomplishments he had achieved to this point, there was some rumbling in certain circles that Lester was the proverbial emperor sans clothes and that there wasn't much to his films once you took away the surface flash and iconoclastic attitude. Whether these opinions reached Lester at all is unknown, but his next couple of movies did find him stretching outside of the comfort zone that he had established for himself with mixed results. A 1966 feature version of the Broadway hit "A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum" offered him the chance to step up to the big leagues but the results were uneven—there were the nifty Stephen Sondhem songs and comedy legend Buster Keaton in what would be his final screen appearance but these good points were outweighed by a turbulent production (the writer-producer was under the impression that he was going to be directing it and when that didn't pan out, he and Lester found themselves at loggerheads regarding virtually everything about the production), a wildly over-the-top performance by Zero Mostel as Pseudolous, the slave trying to help his young master win the heart of the virginal courtesan next door in exchange for his freedom, and the nagging sense that this was a property best appreciated on the stage. The next year, he came up with "How I Won the War," a WWII satire about a group of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to build a cricket pitch for a visiting dignitary. Lester ambitiously designed the film to be both an anti-war statement and a protest against the jingoistic war movies that he felt were equally insidious in how they formed pro-combat attitudes in unsuspecting viewers. The result is an undeniably intriguing film, but one that proved to be difficult for most viewers to embrace and when it is remembered today, it is mostly because of the presence of John Lennon in an unassuming supporting turn as one of the soldiers.
For his next project, Lester took the bold step of returning to his home country for the first time in fifteen years to shoot an adaptation of a novel about the relationship that unexpectedly develops between a straight-laced doctor in the throes of a divorce and an unhappily married free-spirit socialite that would play out during the end days of the legendary Summer of Love in San Francisco. The resulting film, "Petulia," would prove to be Lester's most deliberately mature vision to date in the way that is observed both the relationship between the two characters (expertly and heartbreakingly played by George C. Scott and Julie Christie) and the relationship between Lester himself and the country that he once called home but now had difficulty recognizing anymore. Released during a particularly chaotic point in American history—it premiered a week after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy—“Petulia" was a non-starter at the box-office and sharply divided critics between those who found it a revelation and those who found it a sour and unpleasant mess. In subsequent years, however, opinions of the film have shifted greatly and "Petulia" is now generally considered to be one of the high-water marks of Lester's entire career and the first time that he allowed a genuine emotional core to coexist with the cynical social satire. Even today, its final images still retain enough power to inspire a tear or two in the eyes of even the most jaded of moviegoers.
Although "Petulia" would become his third under-performer at the box office in a row, Lester still had a certain amount of clout in the movie industry and he would invest virtually all of it in his next project, which would prove to be the darkest, strangest and most formally daring work of his career. This was "The Bed Sitting Room," a deeply surreal and blackly comic adaptation of the Spike Milligan/John Antrobus play set a few years after a nuclear war (lasting 2 minutes and 28 seconds) has devastated most of the world and which follows a handful of survivors as they wander through the wreckage of what was once London. A young woman (Rita Tushingham) is 17 months pregnant and lives on the still-functioning Circle Line train with her parents. The BBC is reduced to one man who goes door-to-door to read the news from behind the screens of hollowed-out televisions. A lord (Sir Ralph Richardson) is convinced that he is about to mutate into a bed-sitting room. The National Health Service has been reduced to one male nurse played by Marty Feldman and the entire police force consists of two officers (Dudley Moore and Peter Cook) who do nothing but advise anyone they encounter to "keep moving" so as to prevent them from being targets of a future war. The monarchy, by the way, is now in the hands of Mrs. Ethel Shroake, a former maid of the Queen's who is the closest in succession to the throne.
Watching "The Bed Sitting Room" today, it seem incredible that such a thing could have ever made it through the production process. The comedy is both pitch-black and of a decidedly British nature, and the final third veers into outright tragedy before a conclusion that tries to find a small glimmer of hope amidst all the chaos and horror and astonishingly manages to pull it off while staying true to the material. Needless to say, when the studio heads at United Artists took a look at it, they were appalled at what they saw (to be fair, it seems that the famously hands-off organization was still under the impression that Lester was doing a musical version of Joe Orton's "Up Against It" starring Mick Jagger, the project he had been working on before shifting his focus after that one fell through) and shelved it for more than a year. When it did finally appear in 1970, it was such a bomb with critics and audiences alike that not only did it fail to make a cent at the box office, it derailed Lester's directorial career entirely for the next few years.
Although it would take a few years for him to get back into the filmmaking game in the Seventies, his eventual return would yield a variety of intriguing films that found Lester dabbling in a number of unusual genres. His return from the wilderness began when the father/son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind hired him to direct an epic production of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers," a project that he had once contemplated as a vehicle for the Beatles. Instead, Lester brought together an all-star cast, including Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, Spike Milligan and Charlton Heston and punched up the story with a lot of humor and elaborate swordplay. Although Lester conceived it to be one long film, the Salkinds decided to split it into two parts—“The Three Musketeers" (1973) and "The Four Musketeers" (1974)—and while this move enraged the actors (who were now making two movies for the price of one), both parts proved to be hugely popular with critics and audiences alike and remain arguably the definitive screen adaptation of the story.
Between the releases of the two Musketeers films, Lester managed to squeeze out another film when he was hired at the last second to take over the production of "Juggernaut," a suspense thriller about a bomb disposal team (led by Richard Harris) who are sent off to disarm a number of explosive devices that have been hidden throughout an ocean liner in the middle of the North Atlantic sea while British police back on shore desperately try to uncover the identity of "Juggernaut," the person who vows to blow up the ship unless they are paid $1.5 million dollars. (The story was inspired by a real-life bomb hoax involving the QE2 in 1972.) An uncommonly serious-minded effort for Lester (though it does have a couple of moments of humor), the film is as tense and gripping as they come as Lester manages to keep the white knuckle material going for nearly two solid hours, aided in no small part by an excellent cast that also included the likes of Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm and David Hemmings.
For his next film, Lester returned to a once-shelved plan to bring the adventures of Sir Harry Paget Flashman, the lying, cheating, thieving and cowardly rat at the center of a series of comedic adventure novels by George MacDonald Fraser, to the big screen. Based on the second book in the series, "Royal Flash" (1975) followed Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) as he is forced by Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed) to impersonate a Danish prince about to marry a German princess (Britt Ekland) as part of his diabolcal plan to unify Germany under his rule. The film is funny enough in parts and McDowell is pretty much perfect as Flashman but the plot is little more than a rehash of "The Prisoner of Zenda" and the blend of strange humor and action did not jell as well as it did with the Musketeers movies and critics and viewers alike were left cold by it.
A far more successful revisionary look at a familiar narrative, Lester's next film, "Robin and Marian" (1976) offered moviegoers the sight of a now-aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery) returning from the Crusades at last to woo Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), who has become an abbess in the interim, while rescuing her from the depravations of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw). While the film may lack the derring-do of previous screen incarnations of the myth, "Robin and Marian" is nevertheless a glorious work in which the perfectly cast Connery (in arguably his best performance of the Seventies) and Hepburn (making her first screen appearance in 8 years) demonstrate incredible screen chemistry and Lester dials down the comedy and visual flash so as to let it shine through even brighter. In the long history of Robin Hood films, this one probably ranks behind only the Errol Flynn classic "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), and there are times when I am convinced that it beats out even that one.
The rest of the decade saw Lester tackling a number of unfamiliar genres with mixed results. "The Ritz" (1976) was an adaptation of the Terrence McNally play that is set entirely within the confines of a gay bathhouse in Manhattan where a straight businessman (Jack Weston) has gone to hide out from his mobster brother-in-law (Jerry Stiller) with the usual wacky results. This attempt to do an updated version of the classic screwball comedies of old must have seemed promising on the page, but the results are a little too forced at times for their own good and the laughs never really build, though Lester does get good performances from the cast.
"Butch and Sundance: The Early Years" (1979) remains one of the oddest entries in his filmography—not only was he entering the unfamiliar realm of the Western but he was doing it with a prequel to one of the most beloved films of its time and one which derived much of its power from star casting that simply wasn't possible this time around. The end result is not quite as bad as its reputation suggests, but the combination of a dramatically limited narrative and two stars (Tom Berenger and William Katt) who were simply not Paul Newman and Robert Redford helped to doom it. Far more interesting was "Cuba" (1979), a romantic melodrama set against the fall of the Batista government and the rise of Fidel Castro that starred Sean Connery as an ex-soldier hired to train Batista's men to fend off Castro's army, a mission that he concedes from the start is doomed to fail. While there, he runs into an old flame (Brooke Adams) who is now married to a sleazy plantation owner and their affair rekindles amidst the chaos of the ever-growing revolution. The parallels to "Casablanca" are obvious, but Lester finds a way to make the material seem fresh (something that Sydney Pollack was unable to do a decade later with the similar "Havana") and the romance between Connery and Adams generates some heat. Like many of Lester's best works, this floundered in its original release but is ripe for rediscovery.
Lester rebounded commercially fairly quickly when his job serving as an uncredited producer on "Superman" (a ploy by the Salkinds to goad director Richard Donner, with whom they were feuding, to quit) led to his being asked to direct "Superman II," the result of the Salkinds pulling another "Three Musketeers" by trying to do two movies at once. Although the production was rocky and Lester was required to utilize footage that Donner had shot (including all the stuff with Gene Hackman), the resulting film was a hugely entertaining work that saw Lester shift the tone from the straightforward epic feel of its predecessor to some more overtly comic book in nature—ironic since Lester claimed to have never read and comics before and to have had only the vaguest understanding of what Superman was in the first place.
"Superman III" was also a Lester film, and while it's a little better than its reputation, the picture is undone by a lame villain (Robert Vaughn as a standard megalomaniacal millionaire who belongs in an episode of "Batman") and the need to shoehorn Richard Pryor, then at the height of his box-off popularity, into a plot that simply did not need him. "Finders Keepers" (1984) was another stab at screwball farce, involving a fugitive (Michael O'Keefe) who boards a train with a stolen coffin that contains millions of dollars inside. Despite a decent cast (that also includes Beverly D'Angelo, David Wayne, Pamela Stephenson and a then-unknown Jim Carrey), it just never pulled together and is probably the most utterly indistinct film that Lester ever made.
After a five-year hiatus from filmmaking, Lester returned to the site of one of his greatest former glories when he took on "The Return of the Musketeers" (1989), an adaptation of Dumas's "Twenty Years After" that reunited several cast members from the original films (including Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee and Roy Kinnear) along with newcomers C. Thomas Howell (as the son of Athos) and Kim Cattrall (as the vengeance-seeking daughter of Milady de Winter) for more derring-do. During the production of the film, tragedy struck when Roy Kinnear, who had worked with Lester several times in the past, was thrown from his horse during the shooting of a scene and broke his pelvis. While being treated for his injuries in a Spanish hospital, he had a heart attack and died. The incident crushed Lester, and since he no longer felt confident of his ability to protect his actors from harm, he essentially retired from filmmaking and while he never made a formal announcement along those lines, the only thing that he has directed since then was "Get Back" (1991), a film chronicling Paul McCartney's sold-out 1989 tour. To add insult to fatal injury, "The Return of the Musketeers" failed to find distribution in the U.S. and wound up making its debut on cable in 1991, making its showing at this retrospective its unofficial and long-delayed U.S. theatrical premiere.
Richard Lester has been a major force in the world of cinema over the last half-century. The fact that he is not considered one of the great filmmakers of his time is one of those sad flukes of cinema history that a retrospective like this will hopefully help to rectify. He may be most famous as "The Man Who Framed The Beatles," as one biography described him, but as anyone who checks out some of his other films will quickly realize, he was much more than that.
For more details on "Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast," running August 7-13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, go to the official site.
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