Exploring the work of Richard Lester, who did more than make The Beatles movie stars
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Richard Lester
Why it’s daunting: An American expatriate who grew up in Philadelphia at the same time Ernie Kovacs was dismantling the conventions of television on the local airwaves, Richard Lester approached filmmaking with the deconstructive zeal of a hammer-wielding child. His antic comedies deliberately verge on abrasive hysteria, and his action movies chip away at their own roots, building tension while poking fun at the genre’s self-seriousness. While he’s well-known for a handful of films—mainly A Hard Day’s Night and his two Superman sequels—Lester’s body of work is large, varied, and on the whole underexamined, leaving the curious to fend for themselves after the first few steps.
Possible gateway: A Hard Day’s Night
Why: Whether or not you’re getting ready to geek out on Richard Lester, the relentlessly joyful A Hard Day’s Night is a must-see. Starring The Beatles as themselves—or rather, the carefully constructed personae that would become their public fronts—it’s the definitive document of Beatlemania, even though it’s almost entirely staged. In documentaries about the time, Lester’s shots of young female fans pressed up against a chain-link fence, hoping for glimpses of their favorite moptops, are often presented as the real thing. The line was blurry, of course, since it only took a brief public glimpse of John, Paul, George, or Ringo for a near-riot to break out. But the well-scrubbed, almost asexual jokers the movie presents were designed to be the non-threatening face of the British Invasion, even as the footage of their ecstatic audiences hints at less-innocent urges.
Lester caught the Beatles’ collective eye with “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film.” The 11-minute short is a madcap, borderline-surrealist romp “devised by” and starring Peter Sellers, alongside his Goon Show cohort Spike Milligan. The Beatles’ personalities are so dominant, and their songs play such an integral role in A Hard Day’s Night, that it’s easy to discount Lester’s influence. But even a cursory comparison between the feature and the preceding short reveals Lester stamped his personality on every frame.
Importing jump-cut techniques from the French New Wave, especially Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Lester pulled a bait-and-switch of his own, using The Beatles’ formidable shadow to hide his arthouse leanings. In its own entirely genial fashion, A Hard Day’s Night savages authority figures, from clueless journalists to a fussy TV director to Paul’s (fictitious) grandfather, a scheming gargoyle delightfully played by Wilfrid Brambell. It’s subversive in spirit and form, if not substance, a giddy farce that sells the consequence-free pleasures of shrugging off society’s yoke.
Next steps: In a 1967 interview, Lester said his goal was “using comedy to as serious a purpose as it can be used.” Even the apparently featherweight Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night and its Pop Art successor, Help!, were, to his mind, “serious films,” although he conceded that others might not see them the same way. Like his foremost influence, the great Jacques Tati, Lester used comic means to lament the dehumanization of society, a critique more pointed in some films than others, but unmistakable over the long haul.
So before delving further into Lester’s ’60s films, which remain his most pored-over, if not his most-seen, skip ahead to 1976’s Robin And Marian, with Sean Connery as a middle-aged Robin Hood who returns to England and finds his legend has long since outgrown him. When a former merry man tells him, “Everywhere we go, they want to hear about the things you did,” Robin replies, “I didn’t do them.” Like The Three Musketeers—more on that shortly—Robin approaches its iconic figures with a distinct lack of deference. Sure, this Robin is an upstanding fellow who knows his way around a bow and arrow, but he’s no Errol Flynn, and the slaughter of the Crusades has sapped his sense of moral certainty. In his absence, Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) has taken on a nun’s robes, but only after slashing her wrists in despair over her departed lover. Working from a script by Lion In Winter playwright James Goldman, Lester manages the nifty trick of simultaneously unmaking myth and replacing it with something equally satisfying.
Robin And Marian is the pinnacle of a highly satisfying run of revisionist romps and subversive spectacles Lester made throughout the 1970s. Royal Flash and Butch And Sundance: The Early Days are lighthearted but not simply lightweight; they burrow under the façades of more overtly serious histories that often serve, intentionally or not, to vindicate the atrocities of the past. Figures like Otto von Bismarck (in Royal Flash) and Cardinal Richelieu (in The Three Musketeers) are cut back down to human size, their feet planted firmly in clay. Lester is never mean, but he can be vicious, lightning-quick with a demythologizing jab.
The Three Musketeers and its sequel, The Four Musketeers—both major box-office hits—present their heroes as flawed and sometimes foolish, using an eclectic cast that includes Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Charlton Heston, and Raquel Welch to offset any pretense at authenticity. They’re histories shot entirely in the realm of pop, and self-consciously so. Juggernaut, with Richard Harris as a bomb-defusing expert sent to dismantle devices on a packed cruise liner, plays at times like a rote (though well-executed) thriller, but Lester keeps pulling away from what ought to be the key story to flesh out side characters and simply soak in the atmosphere. What initially seem like digressions—especially during the film’s almost-plotless opening movement—subtly but insistently rebut the eventual argument that the ship’s passengers are simply collateral damage in the government’s ongoing battle against terrorism. When the bomber’s identity is finally revealed, it sets off a chain reaction of mistrust and recrimination as destructive as any bomb blast.
Moving back to the 1960s, pick up the thread of A Hard Day’s Night and follow it through The Knack… And How To Get It and Petulia. (And Help! too, of course.) The Knack, adapted from Ann Jellicoe’s play, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and may be the definitive portrait of Swinging London, but its antic tone is so insistent, it’s almost assaultive. Petulia, released in 1968, basks in the glow of Haight-Ashbury, but the central story of a romance between an unhappily married socialite (Julie Christie) and a gruff divorcé (George C. Scott) acts as ballast, its tragedy weighing down the movie’s more fanciful flights. Christie, who at one point tries to seduce Scott with a borrowed tuba, presents herself as a “kook” (or “arch-kook,” according to the source novel’s title), but her carefree attitude is eventually revealed as a put-on, a way of escaping the clutches of her abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain). Stray setpieces, like the couple’s visit to an automated motel where they’re waited on by a desk clerk’s televised image, seem to have been transplanted from another film entirely, but the cumulative effect is gutting, largely thanks to Christie’s stripped-bare vulnerability.
The Bed-Sitting Room, which recently turned up on Netflix Instant, is the dead end of Lester’s ’60s period, a surreal post-apocalyptic satire that’s as bleak as Beckett. What remains of the world looks like a giant garbage dump, with piles of discarded shoes deliberately recalling Nazi concentration camps, and the Earth’s surviving population is so small that individual people have to stand in for entire classes. (“The BBC,” for instance, is one man with a vacant TV cabinet on his head.) More than any other film, The Bed-Sitting Room embodies Lester’s use of comic technique as an offensive weapon: “The best way,” he once said, “is the Brechtian way—to laugh at it, and to have the laugh turn on your face.”
Where not to start: It’s unfortunate that Lester’s most-seen movies are Superman II and III, since he came onto the former midway through production, and the latter is hobbled by his evident lack of interest in the material. The full story behind Superman II would fill a book, but in short, director Richard Donner shot three-quarters of the film before being fired and replaced with Lester, who’d shot the Musketeers movies for producer Ilya Salkind. Marlon Brando’s scenes had to be cut due to a legal dispute, and Gene Hackman refused to return, so Lester was left to finish the film without some of the principal actors, reshooting large chunks on the cheap. (Donner’s more serious version was completed decades later, with the help of CGI and voice impersonators, and supplanted Lester’s original cut in the recent Blu-ray box set.) Superman III can be fantastically enjoyable in its own right, but it’s disjointed and haphazard at times, particularly when it comes to the major action sequences. There’s some mind-blowing stuff, including a battle between Superman and his evil alter ego that lets Christopher Reeve try out a surprisingly menacing scowl, and although Richard Pryor may be out of place as a comic-book villain, he responded well to Lester’s love of improvisation. But the movies are half-measures, unsatisfying to fans of Lester and the Man Of Steel alike.