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Michael Winner

Review: Scorpio

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.

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Review: The Stone Killer

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

It hardly matters what side of the moral fence Charles Bronson is on in a Michael Winner film. Whether he’s a noble savage hounded nearly to death by dregs of the American melting pot (Chato’s Land), an executive gun done in by his Mafia employers and an ambitious protégé (The Mechanic), or most recently, in The Stone Killer, a new centurion waging a crusade against urban Huns and Vandals—Winner’s undeviatingly nihilistic environment dead-ends him every time. Though Winner laces his increasingly ugly films with heavyhanded liberal preachiness, his central character rarely discovers any ethical position except the dubious one of executioner. Maybe Winner is after the notion that killer societies make murderers of us all—but I doubt it: he wallows too comfortably in his visions of the most brutal ways of dying. You need a long spoon to sup with the Devil, and The Stone Killer further substantiates one’s suspicion that Winner, on some level of consciousness, has begun to relish that which he superficially reviles.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Review: Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Death-wish mechanic Michael Winner first made his name as a director of comedies (You Must Be Joking, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget Whats’isname)—a fact one remembers only with some straining, and without the assistance of his latest film. James Agee once suggested that really bad movies should go about tinkling a bell and crying “Unclean! Unclean!”; it’s getting so that the bell these days is the cutesypoo title (cf. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday). Won Ton Ton, played engagingly but not brilliantly by Augustus Von Schumacher, is intended as a surrogate of Rin Tin Tin, no matter what the lawyers say, and his rise to superstardom is the pretext for a crassly comic view of the Film Capital in the Twenties. An index of Winner & co.’s sense of film history: at the world premiere of the new Rudy Montague (Rudolph Valentino by way of Ron Leibman) picture, the image on the screen is blocked-up, ultracontrasty, and scratchy (“Gee, didn’t old movies always look like that?”). Their notion of film comedy is scarcely more astute—as lowbrow as a dachshund and as funny as a dead rat. One of the better lines: landlady Joan Blondell to nude, sunbathing three-year-old after a talent scout has left: “All right, Norma Jean, you can put your clothes on again!”

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Review: Firepower

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Having ripped off just about every other kind of commercial movie, Michael Winner has inevitably turned his attention to the Bond-style action thriller. Since the Bond films have been ripping themselves off for the past dozen or so years, the pilferings involved in Firepower don’t seem too outrageous. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of goodwill, but it’s not as unutterably crummy as, say, The Man with the Golden Gun either. At least Winner has some decent leads – not that they have a hell of a lot worth doing. I have been infatuated with Sophia Loren most of my life, and hope  always to be,  so I am pleased to report that, at 45, she still looks fabulous; but cast as a routinely enigmatic widow out to avenge (or is she?) the slaughter of her chemist husband by the world’s richest crook, she has no chance to display any acting ability. James Coburn is cast principally, one supposes, because he was a Bond surrogate in the Flint films; here he’s a sort of bounty hunter with a fondness for flora and fauna (cf. Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza) and, you guessed it, his own peculiar code of honour. The flowers-buff bit is just about the only characterisation the script attempts. There’s a token black buddy (O.J. Simpson), as per Dr. No and Live And Let Die, plus the suave millionaire villain tossing off hopefully aphoristic witticisms (any of the Bonds, although the character is also a Howard Hughes-type recluse, like an heroic character in Diamonds Are Forever). This chap has a sadistic aide – don’t they all? There are gadgets galore, a helicopter explodes in mid-air (v. From Russia with Love), people catch fire and so does the sea at one point (FRWL again). The film also comes equipped with casino and the standard exotic sun-drenched backdrops, in this instance Antigua and Curaçao.

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