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O Lucky Man!
2-Disc Special Edition

O Lucky Man!
Warner DVD
1973 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 183? 178 min. / Street Date October 23, 2007 / 19.98
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren, Graham Crowden, Peter Jeffrey, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne, Philip Stone, Mary MacLeod
Cinematography Miroslav Ondricek
Production Design Jocelyn Herbert
Art Direction Alan Withy
Film Editor David Gladwell
Original Music Alan Price
Written by David Sherwin
Produced by Lindsay Anderson, Michael Medwin
Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson seem to owe their art-film breakthrough to Jane Fonda. Her movie Barbarella performed so poorly in England that Paramount replaced it with a small movie it had written off, that had already been finished and shelved for a year: If .... Former film critic Lindsay Anderson directed a respected kitchen-sink film from earlier in the 60s (This Sporting Life, coming shortly from Criterion) but If ... immediately launched him into the company of 'hip' directors. McDowell was tapped by Stanley Kubrick to play the Droog hero of A Clockwork Orange, and was confirmed as a star. O Lucky Man! is Anderson and McDowell's self-referential odyssey through modern English life, a satiric Pilgrim's Progress that begins as a black comedy and becomes progressively blacker. Thanks to McDowell's personality and Anderson's straightforward style, it succeeds where scattershot satires like Candy and The Magic Christian fail ... it's neither a cheap joke nor an excuse to jam celebrity comics into a farcical storyline.

Warners' new 2-Disc Special Edition is another stroke of providence. We're informed that Malcolm McDowell talked Warners into releasing this picture as a condition for his participation in extras for the reissue of A Clockwork Orange. However it happened, this smart new DVD is a good thing; O Lucky Man! is one of the most amusing pictures of the early 1970s.

A simple synopsis can't do justice to Anderson's show. O Lucky Man! is the lengthy but rewarding adventure of Mick Travis, a coffee sales trainee who skips from opportunity to disaster and back again in a succession of mercilessly droll episodes. Anderson approaches Malcolm McDowell's original story (apparently suggested by a short stint selling coffee) from a decidedly stylized viewpoint. The movie sets the stage for its theme (the world is a sinkhole of exploitation) with a silent B&W film about crime and punishment in a South American coffee plantation, with a mustachioed McDowell as the unfortunate bean picker. Before we meet the bright, idealistic Travis (McDowell, of course) we're introduced to singer Alan Price and his band, who will provide musical commentary on our hero's travels and travails.

Mick Travis is an extension of McDowell's same-named character in If .... The narrative puts this working-class Candide to the test almost immediately. The supposedly fertile sales ground of the 'great Northeast' is revealed as a landscape of closed factories. Travis finds that the coffee salesman who preceded him had crooked deals going in an impossibly corrupt town where all the city officials attend a sex club. A dotty neighbor (Ralph Richardson) in a rooming house gives Travis a golden suit that references our hero as a knight on a quest, in need of armor to protect his innocence. The highway police are thieves.

Always agreeable and eager to 'get along' Travis samples the various vices as they are offered. But the farther north he goes, the more sinister things get. He has a hilarious run-in with a Quatermass-like secret government project, and wanders into an equally sinister mad-transplant clinic that in ten minutes condenses Scream and Scream Again into its paranoid essentials. The mad Professor Millar offers Mick a hundred pounds for one week's unlimited experimental rights to his body. Mick's no fool -- he holds out for a hundred and fifty!

Anderson's biggest narrative conceit is a running gag that keeps paying off with big laughs throughout the picture. Practically the entire cast of If ... is not only present, but plays multiple roles in repertory fashion. Several pop up as many as three times during the film. Wild-eyed Graham Crowden is a suicidal professor, a mad doctor and a homeless drunk. Rachel Roberts (from Anderson's This Sporting Life) is a randy psychologist and the paramour of an African dictator. Likewise, familiar faces Mona Washbourne and Mary MacLeod pop up repeatedly as nurses and amorous landladies. MacLeod, finding Travis hungry and helpless in a church, gives him her breast at the foot of the altar.

Anderson championed John Ford's later career, extolling the virtues of The Searchers when the rest of the critical establishment couldn't care less. Anderson's theatrical stock company is as much fun to spot as Ford's. Arthur Lowe shows up as a corrupt mayor & hotelier, and then comes back in blackface as the African dictator. The tone of the movie is pitched somewhere between surrealism, music hall fun and Ealing comedy drollery.

The overriding theme of O Lucky Man! is that the world has been overrun by greedy, ruthless moneymen. The urbane Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson again) has rigged both the law and international politics to line his pocketbook. An entire African country offers its labor population for sale; we see a business prospectus that proposes keeping thousands of workers in involuntary work camps segregated by sex (fewer problems that way). Once again, Travis is willing to go along with this atrocity for personal gain; he helps in the illegal export of an appalling chemical weapon so that Burgess's hired mercenary can eradicate some annoying insurgent freedom fighters. Travis is too greedy to realize that Burgess wouldn't have hired him so quickly unless he had plans for him ...

A very young Helen Mirren turns up as Burgess' free-spirited daughter, who advises Travis not to be so materialistic while conducting her own familial rip-offs. Seeking to win her favor, Travis ends up in prison, and worse. The final chapters chart Mick's descent into the world of the Mike Leigh-like underclass. The film slows down and becomes decidedly less funny. But the spirit returns when the penniless Mick wanders into the skid row audition of � filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. Travis is told to hold some books and then a gun ... and we realize he's trying out for the role of Mick Travis in If ....

O Lucky Man! maintains a keen edge for almost its entire three-hour length; we who saw it in the theater only regret that it didn't have an intermission (I saw it twice and had to miss a few minutes' worth both times!). Directed with style and beautifully photographed by Miroslav Ondricek, the movie is also a visual pleasure. The same team returned a decade later with a third Mick Travis comedy, a dystopian-UK farce called Britannia Hospital. It's less original and more despairing, but is worth checking out.

Warners' DVD of O Lucky Man! is a fine enhanced transfer that spreads the show over two discs, thereby giving our bladders the break denied by the theatrical version. Both parts carry a commentary with Malcolm McDowell, musician Alan Price and screenwriter David Sherwin. It'll be well worth checking out by the film's more confirmed fans. Disc one also has a 1973 featurette Innovations in Filmmaking that celebrates Lindsay Anderson with a narration that must have baffled most moviegoers of the time; Anderson was indeed notable but he certainly wasn't the most influential director of the 60s. And If ... was a big hit, but in a rather small art-film pond.

Disc two features a trailer and an overlong interview based career docu on Malcolm McDowell by Jan Harlan, who also did the extras for Warners' earlier Stanley Kubrick special editions. O Lucky Malcolm! is best when simply recording the actor speaking before audiences -- he's a fine raconteur. The coverage of his earlier films is fine but we see too many clips of actor's less-distinguished later output, with plenty of actors and directors on hand to gush over the star's talents. The last twenty minutes or so seem like more of an audition reel in hopes of better roles, with Malcolm pushing the careers of his son (an AFI genius!) and daughter (an actress!). Much more endearing is McDowell's earlier account of being betrayed by the makers of Caligula, and Mary Steenburgen's affectionate interview.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, O Lucky Man! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, trailer, featurette, docu bio on Malcolm McDowell
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 4, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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