I do wonder sometimes whether the fanboys realise what an important, highly influential and iconoclastic director they’re dismissing when they’re kicking sand into Lester’s face. Martin Scorsese would certainly correct them (sternly, no doubt) and Steven Soderbergh would brook no guff from the self-righteous Fanboy brigade; Soderbergh’s book ‘Getting Away With It…’ was essentially a marathon conversation between himself and Richard Lester, and a cinephile’s dream-chat it is too.
Lester’s signature trait – aside from his deft ways with surrealism and layered soundtracks of discordant conversation (which everyone thinks Robert Altman invented) – was an agnostic detachment that questioned certainties and rejected sentiment. This made him the ideal director to document the pessimistic late 1960s and early 1970s, and indeed, that’s where you’ll find his best work.
It did make him an unlikely choice for Superman II, which continued the chronicles of America’s most iconic and least ironic superhero. In truth, Lester’s work amounted to less than 70% of the final film (he didn’t shoot any of Gene Hackman’s scenes, for example), so director’s credit notwithstanding, it isn’t entirely his own film and isn’t listed here even though it remains, in its initial cut, the best Superman film ever made – there, I said it.
He does have to shoulder the blame for Superman III though, which takes all the solemn pomposity of the Superman myth and literally trashes it, with often skin-crawlingly uncomfortable results. That said, as a kid I thought it was fantastic and there’s actually a lot of mischievous pleasure to be had in parts – and it’s a faultless masterpiece compared to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace – but Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman spoke for the director when he quipped towards the end, ‘I just don’t believe a man can fly.’
Possibly, Superman is simply the hardest comic-book hero to get right on the big screen and Donner was just lucky to trap lightening back in 1978 (even 5m and Christopher Nolan as producer couldn’t save Man of Steel from its own absurdities). However, the next time you stumble upon some smug, stay-at-home 41-year-old graphic novel junkie lambasting the idiot responsible for the first and worst version of Superman II, you might step in and remind him that the same ‘idiot’ also made these six fantastic movies, and many other influential films besides.
6. Petulia (1968)
He may have been Pennsylvania-born, but Richard Lester was a Brit in all but the official documentation. In 1967, he made his first American movie, Petulia and briefly became part of a British invasion of the West Coast, along with Peter Yates (Bullitt) and John Boorman (Point Blank). Set in the fashionable environs of Hair-era San Francisco, Petulia could well have been a quick cash-in movie about the hippy scene, but in Lester’s hands it became a dark, cynical examination of obsession and emotional manipulation. There was nothing groovy about this kind of love.
Lester abandoned his usual arsenal of frantic chasing, staccato editing and ‘zany’ camerawork and instead used an innovative non-linear time frame to mystify the viewer and deliberately keep the characters at arm’s length from the audience. George C Scott is highly effective given a rare chance to play a romantic lead (of sorts). Julie Christie is effervescent and frustrating in equal measure in the title role, and Richard Chamberlain and Joseph Cotten are chilling as, respectively her abusive husband and his father.
Lester wasn’t over-enamoured with the whole Summer of Love scene. By 1968 ‘The Haight-Ashbury scene had gone rotten,’ he later said. ‘In our minds it had become totally false and the innocence was being used.’ Even so, it is still a remarkable period piece, made all the cooler by having Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead jamming in the background. Nicolas Roeg’s photography is as vibrant and primary as ever (San Francisco has rarely looked so breathtakingly beautiful), and the great John Barry offers one of his jazzier scores.
This is Lester’s forgotten classic and one of the most neglected movies of the 1960s. Easily bearing comparison with the sixties work of Godard or Antonioni – Blowup in particular – Petulia is the kind of film Moviedrome would be showcasing if only some saintly BBC exec would recommission it (please God). The late, great Roger Ebert said ‘Richard Lester’s Petulia made me desperately unhappy, and yet I am unable to find a single thing wrong with it. I suppose that is high praise. It is the coldest, cruellest film I can remember, and one of the most intellectual…and it is terribly effective.’ This, about the guy who ruined Superman II by putting too many gags in it.
5. The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
Richard Lester and The Goons went way back. Lester had directed Peter Sellers on TV in A Show Called Fred in 1956 and directed him with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe in the Oscar-nominated Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film (1959). As such, he was the perfect director to film Milligan’s absurdist, dystopian play The Bed-Sitting Room (co-written with John Antrobus and later Charles Wood). The end result baffled most of the miniscule audience that saw it, hastened the exodus of Hollywood money from Swinging London and put Lester’s career on ice for four years. It’s that good.
Essentially a vignette of thinly-linked sketches featuring the twenty surviving citizens of Great Britain who lived through the ‘nuclear misunderstanding’ which led to ‘the very shortest war in living memory, lasting two minutes, twenty eight seconds up to and including the signing of the peace treaty.’ Being a quintessentially British post-apocalyptic movie, the characters try to maintain a dignified continuation of pre-war life. The BBC still exists: only now it’s Frank Thornton wearing half a dinner-jacket kneeling down behind a hollow television set. The tube trains still run, powered by a cyclist; and the thin blue line still maintains law and order. In this case, the police force is two detectives (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) floating in a Volkswagen tied to a balloon telling everyone to keep moving: ‘We don’t want to stay in one place long enough for the enemy to have another chance at us, do we sir?’ Eventually, many of the characters begin to mutate into things like furniture and, in Sir Ralph Richardson’s case, an entire bed sitting room.
Lester’s ability to coalesce such disparate elements as surrealism, slapstick and tragedy is miraculously balanced. His direction is uncharacteristically static and unshowy, which is exactly as it should be. There is so much absurdity up on the screen that any directorial exhibitionism would have led to overkill. Ultimately, this is about a group of people dealing with unimaginable horror and as the surrealism builds up steadily throughout the film, it quietly becomes more and more devastating. For two hours at least, Milligan and Lester must have known how it felt to be Samuel Beckett.
I suspect that the film failed at the box office because its astonishing cast of comic talent – Milligan, Secombe, Cook, Moore, Marty Feldman and Arthur Lowe, who eventually mutates into a parrot and is eaten by his family – suggested the ultimate comedy caper; another It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Bed Sitting Room is very funny, but the jokes are so esoteric and founded upon such terrible horror that you rarely laugh out loud. As a result, it feels like a bespoke film, created especially for you, which is why the few people who have found this movie, alone, late one Friday night and two bottles down, tend to absolutely adore it beyond reason. They’re quite right, you know.
4. The Three Musketeers (1973)
With the BBC’s latest attempt to resuscitate Alexandre Dumas’ classic currently buckling its swash on Sunday nights, now is the perfect time to revisit Lester’s version. Disney had a go in 1993 with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland, Paul WS Anderson’s 3-D version came and went a mere three years ago, and everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to Gene Kelly have taken a crack, but Lester’s is still the definitive version.
This was the first Musketeers film to take the period setting as seriously as the plot. Lester was fortunate to have as his scriptwriter George MacDonald Fraser – he of the bawdy Flashman novels – and his peerlessly informed attention to the minutiae of 17th Century French life is scrupulous in its detail. Lester was similarly lucky to retain his Bed Sitting Room cinematographer David Watkins (who had recently shot an entirely different period France in Ken Russell’s The Devils). The film looks like a Bruegel painting, and the shocking juxtaposition of the squalid, horseshit-spattered living conditions of the peasant class and the polished, regal splendour of the court of King Louis XIII suggests that Lester’s knack for satire was as sharp as ever.
However this is, y’know, for kids, and there’s no short-changing the audience in terms of action adventure and thrilling spectacle. Then there’s the cast: one of the most perfectly suited, yet utterly disparate troupe of actors ever assembled. Raquel Welch is married to Spike Milligan, who is imprisoned and interrogated by Charlton Heston, whose servant is played by Rodney Bewes. Seriously, read that last line back again. Nobody has captured D’Artagnan’s boyish mix of fearless bravery, complete naïveté and fastidious loyalty as well as Michael York. Nobody but Richard Lester would cast the most absurdly beautiful woman in the world as a clumsy inscape; and yet Raquel Welch was never as magical in any other film as she is here.
Then there’s Oliver Reed, never more dashing, heroic and doughty than here as Athos. Even Lester’s great hero Buster Keaton could not have fallen backwards down a well with the comic timing Reed displays in one scene. Reed invested admirable commitment to his role; he was arrested at his hotel during filming for dancing naked in a fish tank in the lobby, crying out ‘You can’t touch me, I’m one of The Four Musketeers!’
Lester’s legendary lack of sentiment was more overt in the sequel, The Four Musketeers, which was shot back-to-back with the first film to save money – something the cast were unaware of, as they later explained to the court in a wages dispute tribunal. A much darker film, unafraid of killing off well-loved characters, as per the original novel, it is a commendably brave adaptation. The first movie though, is one of the most charming of its kind. With its combination of action, comedy and authentic period detail its influence can be seen felt as far and wide as Monty Python & The Holy Grail and Raiders of The Lost Ark.