Hard Westerns from Hard Directors: Hour of the Gun (1967) + Lawman (1971)

November 7, 2017 | By

Director John Sturges

Whereas John Sturges had built up a solid body of tough dramas, thrillers, and could trump any critic by stating without any ornamentation ‘I directed The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven,’ Michael Winner had more to prove to Hollywood; after working his way up in Britain during the 1960s with genre pictures, by the end of the decade his inner-rebel found its voice in not counter-culture films, but movies with visions designed to provoke.

Winner’s career is rather extraordinary because he seemingly arrived in Hollywood as a Brit filmmaker capable of working with temperamental, alcoholic, egotistical, melancholic, and picky actors who would drive colleagues mad, if not slow down production and cost the studio money.

In his lively commentary for The Nightcomers (1971), Winner admits he could handle star monsters Marlon Brando, but handling a problematic or challenging thespian and making a good movie are two very different things.

I’ve written in the past about British Bleakism, a specifically dour view in which certain filmmakers seem to bludgeon audiences with grim visions before punctuating their tale with a sequence, shot, or human cry that proclaims Life is Shit. Michael Reeves was the crown prince of misery, thanks to The Conqueror Worm / Witchfinder General (1968), and Winner seemed genuinely attracted and comfortable tackling customized stories where lives are ruined, people treat each other like rubbish, and one man’s respect for humanity is fleeting.

Revenge was a key motivator among his characters, and the level of nastiness inflicted upon women grew worse as he entered the 1980s. Perhaps he was provoked by Britain’s video nasty revolution which sought to brand and silence provocative filmmakers like himself, but Winner’s style of rapid-fire talking ran circles around his opponents, ultimately tiring or frustrating them without any common resolution.

I doubt Winner wanted to find some common ground between detractors and snooty censors, but his grim films – Death Wish (1974) being his best known – make it easy to pigeon him as a blatant misogynist. Even if he was willing to admit he was a shit-disturber and prude-quasher, as a producer he knew how to package his brand of stories, and as a director there’s a no-nonsense style that ensures his best films lack any meandering plot points and fat.

They’re lean tales of meanness, and fans must certainly wrangle with his bleak worldview and the brutality inflicted upon female characters, but he could make a good picture, especially when the cast was outstanding, and the script was solid, and Lawman (1971), new on Blu from Twilight Time, is evidence he could do good and make a striking work that doesn’t follow the standard rules of a western.

Director Michael Winner

Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967), also from TT, is similarly lean and mean, and deals with the destinies of its anti-heroes, but where he had to remain faithful to historic events, Winner had plenty of latitude to indulge, bend, and warp the story to suit his needs, and Lawman is one of his best and least offensive works. Winner does represent a younger, brasher generation of filmmakers (according to The Stone Killer’s co-star Paul Koslo, he was reportedly profane and vicious on set) and a shift in storytelling that didn’t need widescreen, stereo, or any gimmicky tale to draw audiences into cinemas; Sturges’ artistry mandated a respectful, meticulous usage of composition, colour, and traditional narrative, whereas Winner could’ve delivered his gritty punches in 16mm if that’s what he had to work with. (In fact, one can argue he may have created his most miserable masterpiece in a smaller gauge, higher grain film format.)

Winner’s career ran into some bumps in the 1980s, and after a period with Cannon Films he stopped directing after 1999, and turned his sharp tongue to food criticism, writing a column for The Sunday Times until 2012 when his health began to fail. Passing away in 2013, Winner will remain a controversial filmmaker in part because film historians have a poor representation of his prior work in Britain.

Much of what circulates on home video are his most profitable, notorious, controversial films, but the works through which he learned his craft, explored different genres, and found his niche are unavailable in North America. Decades ago a Thorn-EMI TV package to local stations in Canada included West 11 (1963) and The System (1964), two works that showed a certain brashness for rebels without the weighted, grey working class details inherent to the kitchen sink dramas of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. He certainly wasn’t a proponent of the Free Cinema movement, but he did share a knack for using real locations that added depth to characters and stories – a quality that remained consistent in much of his early Hollywood productions.

With much of his mid- and late-career work available on home video, seems it’s about time for his early British period – the comedies, satires, musicals, and dramas – to get some attention, preferably with some commentary to contextualize a filmmaker perhaps more controversial that so-called enfant terrible Ken Russell.

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG

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