Why isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).
Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.
Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.
Michael Crawford is grade school teacher Colin, the meek landlord of a flat where lives Tolen (Ray Brooks), who has “a certain success with the ladies” (which Lester exaggerates in a simultaneously poetically delicate and outrageously dreamy image of identically clad young women lining up the staircase and out the door into the streets for their turn with Tolen). When Tolen agrees to teach Colin a few tricks he decides he needs a bigger bed. Meanwhile Nancy (Rita Tushingham) arrives in London. While Colin and his new border Tom (Donal Donally) push Colin’s new brass bed home through the streets of London (which Lester shoots with a “candid camera” technique to elicit surprised reactions from unsuspecting onlookers) they “pick-up” Nancy, but Tolen moves in for the make while Colin chokes on small talk. Crawford’s underdog desperation and mix of innocence and desire makes for an appealingly nerdish hero but it’s Tushingham’s kooky charm and deft comic delivery that steals the film. Lester’s offbeat sense of humor and zippy pace drive this goofy romance and compendium of sight gags and non-sequiters, while John Barry’s lovely score balances the energy and invention with a tender romanticism.
John Lennon gets second billing in How I Won the War (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), Lester’s farce of confused priorities and skewed war stories in World War II but is no more than simply another member of the ensemble of confused, distracted and goofing soldiers under the command of Michael Crawford’s eager but incompetent Lt. Goodbody, a cheery upper class twit promoted to officer by virtue of class rather than any talent, intelligence or aptitude for leadership.
Lester had directed Crawford in the The Knack and Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, which are all better movies than this well-meaning misfire of a black-humored satire as anti-war statement. The absurd mission movie (to build a cricket pitch in the North African desert in advance of the invasion) is an awkward mix of British music hall lampoon, “Goon Show” whimsy and absurdity, gallows humor and gruesome scenes of death (actual battle footage is edited into the comic chaos), sometimes inspired, sometimes mugging shamelessly in overworked performances and bizarre antics. Lennon’s impish goofing around the edges can be endearing, but the slapstick often falls flat and the collision of comedy and cruelty gets confused. The cult of John Lennon has made this an essential film for completists, but it’s little more than an oddity for everyone else.
The Bed Sitting Room (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), adapted from the play by Spike Milligan (of “The Goon Show”), is another anti-war satire, this one a series of comic sketches about a post-nuclear London with a girl who is 17 months pregnant, a father who turns into a parrot, and others who become a chest of drawers and a bed sitting room.
All three have been previously available on DVD or DVD-R and are remastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts, and all three include the “Trailers From Hell” shorts on The Knack (with Allan Arkush) and The Bed Sitting Room (with John Landis) and a Lester trailer gallery.
Also from Britain is Figures in a Landscape (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), Joseph Losey’s allegorical thriller starring Robert Shaw and Malcolm MacDowell as strangers on the run from an unidentified threat in an ominous black helicopter across a harsh no man’s land of rock and scrub. They are Englishmen in some unnamed totalitarian country fleeing from some unnamed crime, like Kafka meets 1984. Shaw also scripted the film (adapted from the novel by Barry England) but Losey’s direction is more interesting than the vague philosophical discussions and political symbolism. This one makes its American home video debut on both Blu-ray and DVD.
“What’s the mafia, really? I mean, I’ve heard of them, but…” The Captive City (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1952 crime drama from Robert Wise, is an early mob movie inspired by the Kefauver hearings into organized crime (Senator Estes Kefauver supposedly penned to film’s forward and appears in person in the afterward). John Forsythe plays a small town newspaperman who discovers that organized crime has infiltrated and corrupted his picture-perfect little town and endures a campaign of intimidation from folks he once considered his friends as the community turns deadly. Wise, who apprenticed as Orson Welles’ editor, picked up a few lessons from Welles. He masks the limitations of his budget and ratchets up the tension by shooting in tight close-up, staging shots in depth and shooting in long, sustained takes, and he casts a darkness over what we’ve seen as a sunny little slice of American values as the threat against Forsythe grows. This isn’t a showcase of bravura style, mind you, merely a smart technician’s solution to meet a challenge and create a low-key thriller.
The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of the scores of B-movie answers to the creature features that invaded the movies in the atomic 1950s. This one is an aquatic reptile that looks suspiciously like a carnival sideshow knock-off of The Creature From the Black Lagoon that attacks fishermen and scuba divers who stray too close to his coastal lair. Its reign of terror, however, takes a back seat to the tangled plot of secret experiments, shifty characters, international espionage, paranoia, threats and assassination by spear gun, all revolving around a mysterious shaft of radioactive light from the ocean floor. There’s a famous oceanographer and scientist (Kent Taylor) who created “the first workable death ray,” a sexy female spy who spends much of her time in a bikini, a slow-witted janitor, and a local sheriff who is oddly unfazed by the growing body count and mysterious doings in his town. Shot in a tiny budget with a skeleton cast and cheap creature effects, this is as B as they come. The rubber suit of the vaguely demonic creature bends and sags while the automated mouth randomly flaps open and closed.
This edition features commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, the “Trailers From Hell” piece by Joe Dante, and trailers for The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues and The Monster that Challenged the World.
Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD