55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)

“Lindsay… was never into realism.  He wanted it real, but not realistic.”–Malcolm McDowell

O Lucky Man! is a film about the real world.  I think that everything in it is recognizable to people who look around with open eyes and can see the kind of world we’re living in.  But of course it makes it’s comment through comedy and through satire, because I think the world today is too complex and too mad and too bad for one to be able to make a straight, serious comment.”–Lindsay Anderson

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DIRECTED BY: Lindsay Anderson

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, , , Arthur Lowe, Alan Price, Lindsay Anderson

PLOT: Mick Travis is an eager, ambitious trainee at a coffee company who gets a big break when the firm’s top salesman in the Northeast territory goes missing under mysterious circumstances and he’s picked to replace him.   With his engaging smile and can-do attitude, his career begins promisingly, but soon a sting of unfortunate coincidences befall him.  A plague of strange events drive him across the 1970s English landscape, as he is mistaken for a spy, volunteers for medical experiments, falls in with a touring rock band, becomes the personal assistant of a ruthless capitalist, goes to prison, and works at a soup kitchen.

Still from O Lucky Man! (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • McDowell is Mick Travis in this film.  He played a character of the same name in three of director Lindsay Anderson’s films, each completed in a different decade: If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Other than sharing the same name, there is no evidence that Mick Travis is intended to be the same character at different stages of life.
  • McDowell came up with the core idea for the script, drawing on his own pre-fame experiences as a coffee salesman.  McDowell worked on the script with screenwriter David Sherwin (If…).  In an interview, McDowell recalls that he was having trouble thinking of an ending and Anderson asked him how his real life adventures as a coffee salesman ended.  “That’s your ending,” Anderson told him.
  • This was McDowell’s next project after completing A Clockwork Orange in 1971, cementing his position as the most important weird actor of the early 1970s.
  • Director Anderson had tried to make documentary about singer-songwriter Alan Price before he began O Lucky Man!, but could not obtain funding to license the songs.  Anderson instead invited Price to write the songs for this movie and to appear as the leader of the touring band in the film.
  • Almost all of the actors in the film play multiple parts.  Arthur Lowe won a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor Award for his triple-role as Mr. Duff, Charlie Johnson and Dr. Munda (in blackface).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The final party scene, with the entire cast dancing to the theme song while balloons drop from the ceiling, although the shot of Dr. Millar’s medical experiments is unforgettable as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if Mick Travis’ improbable class-trotting adventures across 1970s Britain weren’t strange enough, Lindsay Anderson sprinkles weirdness and non sequiturs throughout, including Kafkaesque interrogations, a half-man half-hog, and an unexpected breastfeeding scene. Any film in which a boarding-room neighbor inexplicably gives a young man a “golden” suit and sends him out into the world with the sage advice “try not to die like a dog,” is tipping to the weird end of the scale.

Short clip from O Lucky Man!

COMMENTS: The standard line on O Lucky Man! is that it is a satire on the capitalist system.  (No lesser authorities than the Netflix DVD sleeve and the IMDB plot summary proclaim it so).  The first Mick Travis film, If… (1968), with its uncritical (but possibly ironic) praise of revolution for revolution’s sake, was championed by the counterculture, and certainly suggested Anderson was coming from the far left.  The opening prelude to O Lucky Man!, a silent film parody which features McDowell as a third world peasant who gets his hands chopped off for stealing a coffee bean, reinforces the “attack on capitalism” interpretation. Mick begins as a salesman, obsessed with how much he can make in commissions, and continues, through a roundabout journey, to strive for success within the system, even bargaining for a higher price to sell his body for medical experimentation. Eventually his ambition allows him to work his way into the inner chambers of a ruthless industrialist and his corrupt political pals to witness firsthand their plot to crush an insurgency in an African country using chemical weapons so they can build a 500 room hotel resort.  A corrupt judicial system, in cahoots with the moneyed interests, sends him to jail.

So far, so ideological.  But then, a funny thing happens.  Mick reforms in jail; he reads the works of Bertrand Russel and other philosophers, and puts greed behind him to become an altruist and a humanist.  Released from prison, he ventures into the East End of London with pure intentions, bent on helping the less frotunate and what happens?  While he preaches about the inherent goodness of man, pickpockets steal the little bit of money has had left.  Graffiti in the ghetto proclaims that “Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals.”  He joins a soup kitchen, but a gang of ungrateful bums assault him for sport and knock him unconscious with a garbage can.

Truth be told, O Lucky Man! wasn’t popular with the left when it was first released.  The poor were depicted as nothing more noble than rich people without money; just as eager to rob, manipulate and abuse those even worse off than themselves.  And this debauchery is depicted not as a feature of a corrupt political system, but as a key feature of human nature.  Reflecting on O Lucky Man! in 1994 Anderson said, “I’ve never been a socialist.  I’ve never understood how people think that socialism could work because I have always believed in original sin.” (Note that his boss insists Mick eat an apple before setting off on his journeys as a salesman). On the commentary track, scriptwriter David Sherwin reminds us that Britain was heavily socialist, and fairly authoritarian, when O Lucky Man! was written, and that the political order being satirized is actually the socialist order. The corporate, capitalist powers may be ruthless, but the policemen who steal cheese from a car accident victim, the doctor who vivisects his patients in the name of scientific progress, and the military men who kidnap and torture accidental trespassers (asking them such bizarre questions as “Do you believe in the fellowship of man? Think carefully…” during interrogations) were all representatives of the established, supposedly enlightened order.  Mick is an aspiring capitalist because he was born in a society where money is considered the only measure of success. He unthinkingly adopted the dreams that were spoonfed to him from the cradle.  Had he been born in a Communist country, it’s easy to imagine him turning his ambition towards rising in the party ranks, with just as much luck and satisfaction as he has in succeeding at business.

The other, and more accurate, standard line on O Lucky Man! is that it’s a modern version of Voltaire’s “Candide.”  O Lucky Man! fits loosely into the literary genre of the picaresque, tales of the misadventures of an often naive or deluded protagonist as he journeys across a landscape that provides plenty of opportunity for the author to satirize a wide variety of targets.  The model for this type of narrative is “Don Quixote,” but “Candide” is probably the most often imitated.  In Voltaire’s book, Candide naively believes the theory fed to him by Professor Pangloss that humans live in “the best of all possible worlds” and continues to profess this counterintuitive optimism almost up until the very end: despite his continual counterexperiences of being conscripted, shipwrecked, and caught in earthquakes as he travels the world witnessing its misery.  Similarly, Mick Travis’ upbeat optimism and can-do attitude convince him that success is always around the next corner, despite being tortured, experimented on, and wrongfully imprisoned.  Mick continues to indulge in the same madness over and over, following the dream he’s been conditioned to dream and never learning his lesson, until finally he is beaten down so far that his innocent smile is stripped away from him.  (Perhaps this cycle of cluelessness explains why Mick encounters the same cast members palying different roles wherever he goes, but never notices).  It’s only through these hard adventures that he loses his innocence and finds his individuality.  Candide eventually learned to withdraw from the corrupt world and to “cultivate his garden.”  The similar lesson that Mick learns about what truly constitutes a “lucky man”  is encapsulated in Alan Price’s lyrics to the theme song:

If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely
You are a lucky man.
If you’ve found a reason to live on and not to die
You are a lucky man.
Preachers and poets and scholars don’t know it,
Temples and statues and steeples won’t show it,
If you’ve got the secret just try not to blow it –
Stay a lucky man.

The satirical, picaresque structure invites comic exaggeration, and Anderson pushes his critique of modern life to the outer limits.  Everyone, and every institution, is corrupt and venal.  There are secret army experiments, mad scientists, and people plunging out of buildings to their death who are replaced and forgotten moments after they hit the ground.  There are sex parties for the small-town elite and vicar’s wives who give of themselves beyond the call of duty.  There’s the huge cast playing recurring roles. There’s Alan Price’s band, who appear as a Greek chorus whose new album is coincidentally composed of songs that directly comment on Mick’s experiences.  There’s absurd non-sequitur dialogue and non-sequitur coincidences.  There’s unhelpful intertitles, and a couple of times when the movie turns into a silent film.  There’s the fact that the film takes a metamovie turn for the finale.  It’s all very artificial and even grotesque, and yet, as a commentary on the madness of then (and still) modern life, it feels real on a deeper level.  Unreal details aside, this is what life is like, this is how people are, this is how it feels to live in a society which (as Sherwin says in the film commentary) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

O Lucky Man! is a flawed film, but its flaws are forgivable because they come from having too many good ideas rather than too few.  At three hours, the film is just too damn long, and it’s not always filled with fascinating incidents.  The beginning drags on too long with too little of interest—despite the wonderful coffee kissing scene—before things start to rev up when Mick gets his golden suit and his second assignment from corporate headquarters, which sends him on his first real adventure.  As movies based on wanderings from set-piece to set-piece tend to go, not all of the adventures are equally entertaining or successful, and sometimes Anderson’s experiments in form seem pointless.  But when Anderson’s on—as in the scene where the rich and the powerful drink champagne look on approvingly as a series of stills depict the victim’s of military “honey”—he’s can be as powerfully dark and moral as anyone.

Even when the film lags, McDowell’s performance is still endearing.  His Mick is naive but infectious, and even a bit rakish; the audience pulls for him, although we know he’s about to make another disastrous decision.  He’s the kind of guy who has a beautiful woman in his arms but is distracted by admiring the skyscraper in the distance instead, wondering how much it cost to build and how he can raise the money to afford to do the same. He never stops to think that the reason men raise the money to build massive skyscrapers is so that they can coax beautiful women to fall into their arms.  We desperately want this guy to come to his senses.  We watch to see if, and how, he ever will.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes comic, sometimes grotesque but consistently intriguing, this is a spectacular, sprawling satire built around its surreal set-pieces and driven by a charismatic performance by McDowell.”–Film 4

“…the coffee-salesman idea is really just a starting-point for a wild, ramshackle series of picaresque episodes, through which we (and he) move with the kind of sinister illogic more usually to be found in particularly vivid nightmares.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (festival screening)

“…a film that approaches its material not in the manner of a Swift or an Orwell, but as the Carry On team might under the temporary influence of surrealism.”–Time Out Film Guide

IMDB LINK: O Lucky Man! (1973)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

An Extended Review of O Lucky Man! – Well-researched analysis of O Lucky Man by DVD Beaver’s Peter Hoskins includes quotes from Anderson’s out-of-print newspaper article about the film, “Stripping the Veils Away ”

Trailers from Hell: Allan Arkush on ‘O Lucky Man’ – Director Arkush comments on the film’s trailer

DVD INFO: The Warner Home Video release (buy) spreads the three-hour feature film over two discs (perhaps unnecessarily).  Bonuses include commentary from star McDowell, scripter David Sherwin, and songwriter Alan Price (speaking separately), the original trailer, and a contemporaneous 5 minute segment of “Innovations in Entertainment” covering the film for British television.  The second disc contains the 90 minute documentary O Lucky Malcolm!, a career retrospective of Malcolm McDowell’s work, which is a must for the actor’s fans.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “N. Vo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)”

  1. This has been my favourite film for a long time since I videoed it on a late-night slot (possibly the much-lamented Moviedrome) on the BBC. I wore the videotape out I think. I bought the DVD when it came out and when I get some time I’ll watch it. A masterpiece indeed and very weird. I am forever quoting one of Arthur Lowe’s lines from the film (not to mention others): “Always remember gentlemen, that you are a failure in catering if you don’t know what to do with your leftovers!” Also recommended is David Sherwin’s book Going Mad In Hollywood.

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