Film

Richard Lester Brought Pop to the Screen — and Made the Screen Pop

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Richard Lester hasn’t made a fiction feature since 1989, which may partly explain why his films aren’t often collected for retrospectives: He drifted out of the public eye, voluntarily, after The Return of the Musketeers, the follow-up to his two earlier and hugely successful Musketeers movies. Before that, as the director of Superman II and Superman III, he inadvertently helped usher in the era of the superhero franchise. Though there’s no shame in making popular and often hugely enjoyable entertainments, it’s not generally the sort of thing that gets you lauded as an artist.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center redresses that wrong with the sixteen-film series “Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast.” This exuberant retrospective covers Lester’s film career from its beginning, with the glorious 1959 absurdist short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (August 8). Co-directed with Peter Sellers, this rambunctious little picture was so beloved by the Beatles that it landed Lester the job of director for their 1964 film debut, A Hard Day’s Night (August 8). Among the standouts are Lester’s superb 1974 bomb-scare extravaganza Juggernaut (August 7), starring Omar Sharif as a dutiful ship’s captain and Richard Harris as a rakish explosives expert. The series also includes The Three Musketeers, from 1973, and its sequel, 1974’s The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (both August 9 and 11). (The two films were originally intended to be released as one, but were split into two, controversially, by father-son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind.) Also included is The Return of the Musketeers (August 9): During filming, actor Roy Kinnear, one of Lester’s favorite and most frequently used actors, died after suffering an on-set riding accident, leading to Lester’s retreat from filmmaking. This showing of The Return of the Musketeers is its U.S. debut: The picture has never been released here theatrically, and isn’t available on DVD.

Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling, and Jacqueline Bisset all appear.

But the series’ real gems are the movies Lester made in the 1960s, works that marked him as one of the quintessential English filmmakers of the era — even though Lester wasn’t even English. Born in Philadelphia in 1932, Lester worked in American television in the early 1950s; he moved to London mid-decade, where a variety show he produced caught Sellers’s attention. Sellers recruited Lester to help reinterpret his Goon Show radio program for television, an early connection that would eventually open the door to perhaps the finest picture of Lester’s varied and complex career.

You could argue that, with a starring foursome as charismatic as the Beatles, it would have been hard for anyone to mess up A Hard Day’s Night. Better to think of this fleet, euphoric picture as a perfect-storm confluence of events and personalities, with Lester orchestrating every moment of its wind, rain, and sunshine. With its whip-smart editing (by John Jympson) and its velvety black-and-white cinematography, half workaday and half mystical (by Gilbert Taylor), A Hard Day’s Night is a supreme example of what can happen when a filmmaker’s artistry is fully in tune with pop culture rather than hovering, on a safe cloud of superiority, above it.

But far less well-known, and fascinating for other reasons, is the picture Lester made right after A Hard Day’s Night: The 1965 The Knack…and How to Get It (August 8 and 10), based on a hit London play by Ann Jellicoe that later played Off-Broadway, won Lester the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. Michael Crawford (later to become scarily famous in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera) plays meek London schoolteacher Colin, who’s impressed by, and jealous of, the cool-cat musician who rents a room from him, played by Ray Brooks (who looks like a cross between Paul McCartney and Michael Sheen). Brooks’s Tolen — he goes by only one name, “like Mantovani,” as one character remarks — can practically blink women into bed. In the picture’s dreamlike opening sequence, a bevy of young London beauties in identical wool-skirt-and-clingy-sweater combos form a queue that winds into and out of his bedroom. Later, we see him slay conquest after conquest — Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling, and Jacqueline Bisset all make brief appearances. (The Knack is the film debut of all three.) Another lodger, Tom (Donal Donnelly), insinuates himself into the household: He’s an obsessive who insists on painting the brown interior of Colin’s house all white.

Then Rita Tushingham’s Nancy, a naïf with a wide, rubbery smile, drops into their orbit. Recently arrived in London, she’s just looking for the YWCA. Instead, she falls prey to Tolen’s advances, even though she clearly likes Colin better. In the picture’s most exultant, Lester-esque sequence, Tom and Colin wheel her through the streets of London — and even float her down the river — on a cast-iron bed Colin has procured from a junkyard, turning it into a carriage fit for an everyday princess. Tolen whisks Nancy off to the park on the back of his motorbike; dazed by his attentions, she passes out, and when she awakes, she cries out in alarm — “Rape!” — though Tolen has barely touched her. She seems to believe a rape really has occurred — she races through the streets hysterically, singing the word over and over again — while Tolen looks on, horrified. The subtext: He loves girls, sure, and will do whatever it takes to get them into bed. But he’s no rapist.

The Knack is a comedy, though it’s important to acknowledge the cultural context in which it was made. At one point a male character says, a bit too casually, “Girls don’t get raped unless they want it” — that’s a hot-button line of dialogue if ever there was one. But The Knack is actually a cool-headed exploration of the strange new roles that young men and women were suddenly forced to navigate: If negotiating sex was confusing enough before the sexual revolution, afterward it became all too easy to mix up the signals. The movie’s conclusion isn’t wholly satisfying, and its overall view of sex is uncomfortably cold. But Lester is in control every minute: Its stylishness alone makes it compelling.

Even more meticulously crafted, and more stylized, is the 1968 Petulia (August 10 and 13), in which Julie Christie plays a society wife who seduces a divorced surgeon (George C. Scott). The picture is admirable for the way it’s put together — it has a purposely fractured, pop-art trendiness. The trouble is that Lester shows little but contempt for his characters. Even though Christie, always a marvelous actress, plays Petulia as not just scheming but also vulnerable, the movie is still stacked against her — only Scott’s noble doctor walks away with his dignity intact.

Lester can be a very cool director, at least slightly detached from the proceedings; sometimes his movies are more intriguing than they are likable. But his 1965 Help! (August 8 and 10) is in a class by itself, not so much a matching bookend to A Hard Day’s Night as a half-joyous, half-mournful afterword. The plot is unapologetically silly, and wholly delightful: The practitioners of a fictitious Eastern religion — led by tubby potentate Leo McKern and his sultry sidekick Eleanor Bron, in an amazing assortment of feathered headdresses and sparkly capes — chase after Ringo, having learned that he’s in possession of their sacred ceremonial ring.

A Hard Day’s Night showed us four young men at risk of being torn limb from limb by the misplaced love of screaming young girls. Help! turns them into an actual human sacrifice. The Beatles’ casual charm is what made us love them so much. In Help! two proper old ladies in kerchiefs and tweed coats catch sight of the boys and beam at them with affection: “So natural! And still the same as they was before they was.” But they could hardly be the same, and Lester captures that. He shows the Beatles performing “I Need You” in a field — it was Salisbury Plain — circled by army tanks that, while there to protect them, radiate an air of menace. A pop group under siege by the world, they escape to the Bahamas for sun and fun, but there’s little to be had. Help! is filled with hijinks, including a half-raucous, half-poetic sequence in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo frolic in the snow of the Austrian Alps — the song is “Ticket to Ride,” its skittering, skating melody itself seemingly in search of escape.

Lester didn’t set out to make a film about the end of the Beatles. But Help! may have been his unconscious way of weaning us from our own cherished ideas of just what we wanted them to be. As a kid, I recall being disappointed to learn that the boys didn’t really live together in one groovy London pad, as they do in Help! Lester’s vision of these four, crammed too close for comfort in their bubble of fame, is ultimately a deeply compassionate one. Leave it to an honorary Englishman to grasp the sweet sadness of their story.

Richard Lester

August 7–13

Film Society of Lincoln Center