O Lucky Man! Review

This review contains plot spoilers

It's been a good year to be a fan of Lindsay Anderson's work. We’ve had two excellent releases of if…, an announcement of a Criterion special edition of This Sporting Life and, most gratifyingly as far as I’m concerned, a release of his masterpiece, the 1973 epic O Lucky Man. A rambling, scattershot study of Britain during the first half of the 1970s, loosely based on Malcolm McDowell's experiences as a coffee salesman, it’s hugely energetic, genuinely witty, sometimes shocking and always thoroughly entertaining. Critics at the time condemned it as undisciplined; I would prefer the term uninhibited.

Of course, O Lucky Man isn’t an epic in the usual Hollywood sense. Lindsay Anderson described it as an “epic in the classical, poetic sense.” Classical epics usually featured a heroic figure engaging in a series of adventures while on a voyage and returning home transformed by their experiences. The narrative is usually punctuated with memorable set-pieces – the Trojan Horse, the battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba, the encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops and suchlike. Anderson’s film presents us with a hero, Mick Travis (McDowell), who voyages up and down the country encountering a bizarre array of characters and situations. Frequently, the intent is satirical and the images deeply surreal. Mick is an ambitious coffee salesman who finds unexpected riches in the North, narrowly avoids being blown up by the army and killed in the name of science, makes a fortune associating with a corrupt businessman, ends up in prison and finally gets a job with Lindsay Anderson appearing in a film called O Lucky Man!. At the end, Mick has reached an accommodation with himself and the world – he is a lucky man not because he is rich or successful – nor because he is to be a film star - but because he has survived in a world where cruelty is random and kindness all too rare.

The film is hugely, even madly ambitious. Anderson’s previous work had often been experimental and reached beyond his means but O Lucky Man saw him working on his largest budget with a huge cast and extensive location filming. It seems, in retrospect, to be a panorama of Britain in 1973, a time when society seemed on the brink of falling apart – although that’s fairly true of much of the decade, my recollections of power cuts, strikes and inflation no doubt exaggerated and heightened in the memory. But Anderson is careful to make his points clearly and forcefully, often playing them out in memorable comic scenes. So, the corruption of local government is neatly envisioned through the “party” which Mick attends in the back of a hotel where all the local dignitaries exchange backhanders and watch porn. The failings of the police force can be seen in the two uninterested traffic cops at the scene of an accident and in Bill Owen’s scary cameo as a brutal detective, taking bribes and beating up suspects. The hubris of science comes off badly in the scene at the research laboratory where Mick narrowly avoids having his genes spliced with those of an animal – he’s luckier than another poor chap who has had his head grafted onto the body of a sheep. Anderson targets everyone – well-meaning but ineffectual charity, seedy old boarding houses, illogical globalisation – “These Nigerian coffee beans are being sent straight back to Nigeria!” – the corruption of government, military and big-business, the ruthless cruelty of the rich, and the self-denying piety of the poor. It’s certainly true that he – along with screenwriter David Sherwin – hits out in all directions but what gives it consistency is the central theme of a society in decline. The film shows all this without providing any answers, celebrating the ability to survive rather than the power to change things.

It’s a powerfully visual film and one comes away with incredibly strong memories of individual images, lit with immense skill by the brilliant Czech cinematography Miroslav Ondricek. The shock reveal of the man/sheep is justly famous but it is joined in my mind by the ludicrous “Chocolate Sandwich” routine, the horribly gory slide-show featuring the effects of chemical warfare – “Honey” - on the poor citizens of Zingara, and the terrifying spectacle of the homeless turning on their benefactor. The faces of the actors join these images; Ralph Richardson both as the seedy lodger and the repulsive, suave Sir James; Arthur Lowe as the corrupt Mayor and, blacked up, as the president of Zingara; Rachel Roberts as the exotic Mrs Rowe and the desperate Mrs. Richards. It’s a massive cast and virtually every face is memorable. Like Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, Anderson uses the British acting profession as a series of grotesques. Indeed, the two films share some actors in common – McDowell, Philip Stone, Warren Clarke – although it would be fair to say that Anderson’s control of the performances is a lot surer than Kubrick’s. There are no disgraceful exhibitions of mugging to compete with Aubrey Morris or Patrick Magee in the earlier film.

All the way through the film, there are two constants. The first is Malcolm McDowell in one of his signature roles. He’s absolutely likeable as Mick Travis, even when behaving reprehensibly. Like Candide, he’s an innocent who becomes corrupted by the world – and McDowell perfectly fits the description of Voltaire’s hero whose face is “the index of his mind”. Travis searches for goodness and wants to find it but at every turn, he finds either small-minded malice or pure evil, often on a global scale. By the end, he has nothing except his face – but ironically, that proves to be enough to assure his future. The second constant is Alan Price who provides a running commentary of songs which comment on the action. He also appears as himself and is the only unaffected, totally pure character in the film. His lyrics are like a moral compass which, if followed, would act as a warning. But Mick can’t hear them and makes the mistakes anyway.

Although if… is a more controlled film – and in its way, just as brilliant – I think O Lucky Man is Anderson’s greatest work because it’s got so much ambition. Anderson wants to encapsulate everything in the course of three hours and he doesn’t allow himself to be inhibited by the tenets of British cinema tradition or the kind of kitchen-sink realism he explored in This Sporting Life. It's also biliously, side-splittingly funny in places, although the humour is often pitch-black - I particularly love the fate of Professor Millar and William and Sir James' little sermon which follows it. I can’t think of another film quite like this and although from scene to scene it sometimes seems a little too broad or a bit too rambling, the sheer force of ambition carries it forward and makes it, by the end, unforgettable.

The Disc

I’ve been waiting for a DVD release of O Lucky Man! for years and it’s good to see that Warners have given it the treatment it deserves. Not only do we get an excellent transfer but the film is accompanied by interesting new supplements which genuinely enhance the overall experience.

The film is divided over two discs with the break coming at a natural pause in the narrative. Some people may complain about this but I think, on the whole, that the excellence of the image overrides any other considerations. It’s a very strong, progressive transfer framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There are no problems with artifacting or excessive enhancement and the level of fine film grain is quite beautiful. The transfer has been struck from an excellent print with no signs of damage. Colours also looked good to me – tremendously natural – although some people have complained that they seemed a little flat. All in all, I think this is a definite feather in the cap of Warner Brothers.

There is an exception to the above and that’s the ‘missing reel’ which was restored to the film in 1978 by Lindsay Anderson. This comes just after the Salvation Army scene and deals with the suicidal mother. The original negative for this 10 minute section was lost and so it looks correspondingly disappointing on the DVD. However, it’s so good to have it in the film at all that the quality seems beside the point. It’s certainly very watchable and only suffers in comparison to the high quality of the rest of the film.

The soundtrack is allegedly in Dolby Digital 5.1 although there is so little action from the surround channels that it might as well be mono. Thankfully, the dialogue is crisp and clear and Alan Price’s songs sound splendid throughout. Why Warners decided to do this idiotic bump up to 5.1 is beyond me but it apparently helps sales. Personally, restored mono would always get my vote.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track which features Malcolm McDowell, Alan Price and David Sherwin. McDowell does most of the talking and is, as ever, a riveting raconteur with a fund of interesting stories. Alan Price begins in a subdued manner but soon warms up and makes some good points about the political side of the film. Sherwin doesn’t have much to say in comparison but fills in some of the background to the film and talks enlighteningly about the creative process of working with Anderson.

Also on the first disc is a vintage documentary entitled O Lucky Man! Innovations in Entertainment. Nothing very exciting here but it does contain some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage and good interview snippets. Finally, the disc is rounded off with the original theatrical trailer.

The second disc contains the second half of the film and a new profile of Malcolm McDowell called O Lucky Malcolm!. The title reflects the fact that O Lucky Man! is McDowell’s favourite film and also goes some way to suggesting what a fortuitous career the man has had. This documentary is produced by Jan Harlan and can also be found on the recent Clockwork Orange DVD. It’s a very straightforward, chronological look at McDowell’s career, benefiting inestimably from a frank and funny interview with its subject and some clips from a stage interview. There are also interviews with his friends and colleagues and numerous extracts from his films. The picture quality on this feature is exceptionally good but there are some sound synch faults in places which are annoying.

The film has optional subtitles but the extra features do not.

O Lucky Man is a one-of-a-kind film which has aged well because many of the issues it explores - the divide between rich and poor, the corruption of those in authority, the immorality of international affairs, the ruthlessness of science - are still incredibly relevant. This DVD from Warners looks and sounds great and contains some very nice special features. Highly recommended!

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