Malcolm McDowell’s commanding presence as a sadistic ruffian in A Clockwork Orange and the teen rebel of If . . . established him as a major young star and a pop icon. He’s made more than 90 movies (13 are on view at the Walter Reade), and is still going.
In his early films McDowell projects an odd mix of arrogance and youthful compassion. As a public school anarchist in Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . (1968), a landmark of ’60s cinema and counterculture, he leads a full-scale revolt against everything the place stands for. A film of tremendous resonance, coming when it did in 1968 with the force of a grenade, the first part of Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy spoke the language of the barricades in that year of revolution, using the school as a microcosm of a repressive British society. Anderson’s picaresque road movie, O Lucky Man! (1973), If . . .‘s semi-sequel, takes Mick out into the world. He’s still an underdog, but no longer a revolutionary. The springboard of the script was McDowell’s own memories of his early days as a salesman in the north of England. It’s a wild, episodic film, full of fantastic swipes at bourgeois targets, held together by Alan Price’s superb score and McDowell’s tremendously appealing, Candide-like Mick. McDowell appears as a reporter in Anderson’s vitriolic Britannia Hospital (1982), the final and least successful of the Mick flicks.
McDowell would always be linked with A Clockwork Orange (1971); he etched Kubrick’s insolent ogre so strongly that for a spell audiences seemed to have trouble separating actor from role. While no great shakes, Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979) was a welcome change of pace. In his Hollywood debut, he’s a charmingly bumbling H.G. Wells who turns up in present-day San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper—they’ve both cleared out of Victorian London in Wells’s time machine. This rambling one-joke affair is redeemed by the palpable chemistry between McDowell and leading lady Mary Steenburgen, who were married soon after.
One of the most simpatico films in the show made no waves at all first time out. Alan Arkush’s antic comedy Get Crazy (1983), full of goofy cartoonish gags about a New Year’s Eve rock concert where everything goes wrong, gets everything right. McDowell, in a supporting role, steals the show as Reggie Wanker, a preposterous, burned-out rock star with padded basket, clearly a takeoff on Mick Jagger.
Our “insolent angel” retains the dubious honor of incarnating the title role of the world’s first 20-million-buck porno flick, Bob Guccione and Tinto Brass’s notorious Caligula (1979), described by one reviewer as “a moral Holocaust.” As the nutso Roman emperor, McDowell shows his tush, does a mad little dance, and Grand Guignols it up to no avail. It’s a numbing bore, in spite of the august presence of Sir John Gielgud and a number of uncredited stiff dicks.
The retro’s highlight is Granada TV’s hour-long 1976 production of Harold Pinter’s The Collection, directed by Michael Apted, and not seen here in some time. Laurence Olivier is a successful middle-aged gent in the clothing business who lives in queer ménage with McDowell, a young designer whom the older man has plucked out of the slums. Alan Bates runs a boutique with wife Helen Mirren; she has led him to believe that she’s been “taken advantage of” by McDowell. Is her story true? With the arrival of a few Pirandellian twists, two, and eventually three, incompatible stories confront each other. To boot, jealous husband Bates seems to be a closet case who has a love-hate thing with McDowell. Pinter’s script is intriguing, the juicy ensemble acting of this dream cast breathtaking.