Bad Directors Made Small #1

Michael Winner. Astonishing how those simple words transform an innocent baby picture into a glimpse of another and more terrible world, as Bertie Wooster might put it. What we have is purely and simply Michael Winner’s head, exactly as it appears today, transplanted atop a baby’s torso. Jan Svankmajer would run screaming into the night.

And yet, above and beyond the image’s power to inspire revulsion and terror in all right-thinking people, there’s the dark suggestion that this might yet be a nightmare vision of the future: when Winner is even older and more withered than he is now, and his necrotizing fascitis, having used his leg as a mere appetizer, has whittled him down to just a head and spinal column, leaving him with the tragic proportions of a jester’s wand, can we doubt that he’ll have his head transplanted onto a baby and start life all over again? He’s rich enough. The only hope I can see that my scenario might lack credibility is the comforting thought that if Michael Winner had a baby’s torso in his freezer, he’d already have eaten it.

Enough cruelty. For now, anyway. The twins of evil depicted come from Winner’s autobiography, Winner Takes All, which is pretty entertaining. If the standard Winner comedy or thriller always descends into inexplicable unpleasantness (slashed throats in HANNIBAL BROOKS; a bleeding guardsman in THE JOKERS; most of DEATH WISH; all of BULLS-EYE!), infected from within by the man’s irrepressible “personality,” the autobio is actually mostly fun, since the persona is front and centre and never pretends to be anything it’s not. Or if it does pretend, the effort is so slight and the weight of textual evidence so vast, that the transparent tissue of benevolence is rent asunder and dissolved before our eyes.

A pretty remarkable TV discussion — everybody talks passionately and articulately, nobody makes any particularly good points, although of course the TV pundits are correct that DEATH WISH II is an appallingly bad film… One rather respects Winner’s sang-froid, especially when he unexpectedly shoots himself in the foot by asking Anna Raeburn if she has first-hand knowledge of rape, and doesn’t get the answer he was expecting. As any lawyer could tell you, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

Some of the best stuff in the book involves making I’LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME with Orson Welles. A discussion about billing:

Orson said, ‘I want to tell you a story. There was a time when Ellen Terry was acting with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and she said to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, “You know, I think the billing should read Ellen Terry and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. My name should be first because I’m more popular than you are.” Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree said to Ellen Terry, “Miss Terry, unless you stop this nonsense the billing will read Sir Herbert  Beerbohm Tree but Ellen Terry.” ‘ Orson roared that deep throaty laugh. I said, ‘Orson, that’s brilliant. That’s how we’ll do your billing. It’ll be the first film ever to get good reviews for the billing. We’ll say Oliver Reed, Carol White, Harry Andrews but Orson Welles.’

Unfortunately Orson changed his mind, demanded top billing, and got it. Winner, always respectful of his stars (if no one else), didn’t mind.

13 Responses to “Bad Directors Made Small #1”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Ghastly man – but I do have a soft spot for his gloriously camp remake of THE WICKED LADY.

  2. Felt sorry for Marina Sirtis who is naked in every single one of her scenes, and now refuses to discuss the experience. If fans show up with stills for her to sign she tells them to piss off.

  3. And I have a soft spot for The Mechanic — a tender tale of gay contract killers in love starring Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent.

  4. I’ve still to see that one. Have generally found his thrillers objectionable, but that at least sounds distinctive. I might give The System with Oliver Reed a try soon, it seems like it might at least have nostalgic value, and Winner’s customary sexism will be in keeping with the times.

  5. I had a two-word comment on the ending for The Mechanic, which I can’t give here since it’s a spoiler.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, Winner is obnoxious but are ALL his films bad? I feel that MOVIE made him a whipping boy like “Smith of the Lower Fifth” but LAWMAN, DEATH WISH, and CHATO’S LAND are not that bad. David E’s comment on THE MECHANIC was also noted by some critics at the time. In 1979, I met Jerry Fielding who remarked that “Although Michael Winner makes bad films, at least he leaves me alone to do my music”. Perhaps some further comment from others here?

  7. I find all the Winner thrillers I’ve seen obnoxious, and the films he made which aren’t bad are still pretty badly directed. He makes stylistic decisions purely based on fashion or the pursuit of momentary stimulation of a perceivedly jaded public, which would be bearable if his taste weren’t so vulgar and abysmal. That said, Herbie Hancock’s music almost makes Death Wish good, and Chato’s Land has a pretty good structure and angle of approach. But both are deeply horrible at the same time.

    His last five or six films are maybe entertaining for their sheer awfulness, though.

  8. Any director capable of making a throughly uninteresting film starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon has hit the Moter Lode in Anti-Talent

    The true auteur of The Mechanic is screenwriter Lewis John Carlino.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    No argument with that Delon-Lancaster film, David E!

  10. I guess that’s Scorpio? I wondered about that one.

    Carlino, screenwriter of Seconds, is pretty fascinating. Became interested in seeing The Fox recently after enjoying Anne Heywood in Floods of Fear…

  11. StuDetroit Says:

    Can’t we give The Jokers its due? I saw it when I was 18 and was completely won over. Its a Richard Lester-ish gem, a fast, bright, witty caper movie in which the rivalry between two brothers takes some unexpected and slightly dark turns once they get the loot. It was the first time I’d seen Oliver Reed or Michael Crawford, and they struck real sparks as the utterly opposite brothers. Liked it so much I went back to see it a second time. Caught it on the tube a few years ago and it held up fine. Highly recommended! Perhaps Winner was replaced by an imposter after that, or was infected by some brain virus?

  12. Since my spoiler probably won’t be read by many about The Mechanic, I give it here – when I saw the climax of the movie I yelled “Flying Beefcake!”. I didn’t see the film in the theater, but on television around 1980 or so.

  13. As a big Lesteroid, I’m a little wary of imitations. You’ve Got to be Joking is more directly derivative, an amoral romp which doesn’t get too horrible. The dark turns in The Jokers didn’t seem entirely under Winner’s control, it’s what I mean by his personality breaking through — all his comedies have unpleasant scenes. But that one is better than the rest, I’ll give it that.

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