[GUEST] Michael Winner’s work, 1971-74

I’m delighted to publish my next guest post from my fellow university course mate, John Renney. It was very clear for us all to see, this chap has talent pouring out of his ears. Thanks for being a part of it John!

In this post, John shares his views on Michael Winner, and why he was so much more than the ‘calm down dear’ man on the adverts.

michaek winner pic.png

Michael Winner 1971-74 – Anti heroes and creating Kersey.

After the success of his first action film ‘Hannibal Brooks’ (United Artists 1969), English director Michael Winner was hot off the press and was soon snapped up by Hollywood.

Winner began his American career with a savage and bleak western drama ‘Lawman’ (United Artists, 1971). The film boasted a stellar cast of character actors with Robert Duvall, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Ryan, and Burt Lancaster in the lead. ‘Lawman’ is the beginning of an artistic and creative flourish in Winner’s directorial career which he never bettered.

He followed ‘Lawman’ with the strange, high tension sexual drama ‘The Nightcomers’ (Avco Embassy Pictures, 1972) a low budget prequel to the Jack Gold film ‘The Innocents’, starring Marlon Brando. Winner himself refers to ‘The Nightcommers’ as his only art-film.

He then began a long standing partnership with actor Charles Bronson, beginning in 1971 with the violent revenge western ‘Chato’s Land’ (United Artists, 1972), followed by the action film ‘The Mechanic’ (United Artists, 1972).

In 1973 Winner worked with Burt Lancaster again, along with french new wave star Alain Delon, in the Walter Mirsch produced espionage thriller ‘Scorpio’ (United Artists, 1973). This period in Winner’s career came to a successful end with two action thrillers ‘The Stone Killer’ (Columbia Pictures, 1973) and Winner’s best known film ‘Death Wish’ (Paramount Pictures, 1974). Both starred Charles Bronson at the height of his fame in the action genre.

Even with this list of successful star studded movies, it seems that whenever I mention Winner in conversations with other filmmakers, he is often sneered at. I have never understood this. I feel that in the early 1970’s Winner was at the top of his game.

After his death in 2013 I remember reading the obituaries in the papers and being annoyed that writers were simply dismissing his film work. Instead they were only talking about Michael Winner the overindulgent and politically outspoken socialite. Although he was spoken of in a pleasant and heartfelt way, only ‘Death Wish’ was mentioned. No one seemed to be remembering a filmmaker who had a string of hits, and was applauded by the critics of his day for creating some great entertainment.

I believe Winner really had something to say in these several films he made in the early 70’s. Throughout these films Winner creates a downbeat and uneasy feeling, there is a brooding menace lurking in the background of each character, and there are definitely a few social comments being made within them.

I appreciative all of these films for being good narrative works and great character study pieces, but I can also appreciate them for just being very decent well made films. Winner was interested in telling stories for entertainment as well as having a theme and a social commentary. I genuinely believe he was making films reflecting the public consciousness, and that he was first and foremost interested in the human condition and creating good dramas. Winner has often been criticised for the violence and sexual explicit content of his films. In the 1970’s Winner’s old Cambridge school mate James Ferman was head of the British

film board, and Winner had trouble getting most of his films passed uncut by the British censor. Winner himself has said that he believes the violence in his films is there to create drama and tension, and to reflect upon what he sees in the world news and media. Often stating that: “drama has always been about conflict, Shakespeare had people with severed heads, running around the stage with heads on poles,- do you think there was a Mary Whitehouse outside The Globe” (1.Thames television interview ITV 10/09/85).

Regarding the drama and tension in Winners films, ’Lawman’ in particular shocked me as an audience member, not because of its violence but because of its emotional ambiguity.

In ‘Lawman’ there begins a distraught feeling of emotional detachment, which runs throughout the characters in all Winner’s American films. Lancaster’s character is almost totally emotionless, he uses his badge and the Law as a shield. It is a wall he uses so he doesn’t have to think or feel for himself. He is a character who has had a checkered past, we know this as he meets an old girlfriend who rejected him years before because of his violent ways. He confides in her that he still has feelings for her, only to then destroy everything in her life before he leaves town, he doesn’t seem to do this with intension, destroying lives just seems to be something he does. This is a character trait that makes it very difficult to look at his as the normal western genre hero.

This is where I begin to feel Winner is saying something very interesting with his characters. It seems the Lawman will go through his life destroying everything so he doesn’t have to deal with his emotions at all. Anything that touches him or makes him feel uncomfortable is unacceptable. He uses his Laws, which he has sworn to defend as a barrier between himself and all other emotion and feeling. The Law is his judge, jury and executioner, and he will follow it to the point of destroying all other meaning in his life.

The Lawman seems deeply hurt and bitter about his way of life, this makes him quite detestable in the way he treats others, even the innocent. We never quite find out why he is this way, as his past is only hinted at. By hiding the protagonist’s past I feel that Winner is inviting you into the story and asking you to be part of it by filling in the blanks. Winner is offering you a way into the character and asking ‘Do you think he is right?’ He gives us an alternative anti-hero that is shady and corrupted. Our hero is an imperfect and untrustworthy character, but he is all there is to defend us from evil. He is our own system come back to haunt us, he is defending our Laws whether we like it or not.

The Lawman is the first hint at a running social commentary throughout these films, there is a system in which we all live, and whether we like it or not we are forced to live by it…or are we?

Winners’s next production ‘The Nightcomers’ carries on the idea that people can become trapped by their own beliefs and indeed be destroyed by them. Marlon Brando’s character of Quint is an overbearing, brooding and yet sexually charged man who imposes himself and his beliefs onto others. Quint believes that to love is also to hate, and only death can be the ultimate joining of two souls. These beliefs, his overbearing eroticism and magnetism are what eventually will come to destroy him.

This is the same belief system that locks away the emotions of Lancaster’s character in the ‘Lawman’. Both these characters are using

their belief in a system or set of values to hide and separate themselves from others. In Quint’s case he uses his strong and natural demeanour to overpower and control people, so he is never vulnerable, this backfires on him in the end. This is the same way the lawman is controlling his world via a system of rules which he never even invented. Both characters are using all they have to defend themselves from any emotional attachment. They are attempting to totally control their environment which in Winner’s dramas can only lead one way, to explosive violence and self destruction.

In his next two films ‘Chato’s Land’ and ‘The Mechanic’ Winner creates an untrusting and very violent world. There are no apologies for the violence in these films, at this time in the 1970’s the first televised war was shown constantly in the media and violence was very much in the public consciousness. As lawman was a comment on our laws and how we can be trapped by them, ‘Chato’s Land’ literally holds up a mirror to what was happening in the world and imitates it.

‘Chato’s Land’ can be taken as an allegory for the Vietnam war and this was rightly picked up on by both English and American critics at the time of its release. Norman Mclean Stoop the critic for New York After Dark said, “Chato’s Land is an unusually satisfying western. The Parallel to Vietnam is almost impossible to ignore”(2.p177 2004 Robson books).

Obviously Winner was saying something people picked up on, and not just creating a violent throw away exploration film. The story of ‘Chato’s Land’ follows a half breed Native American played by Charles Bronson, who because of racial discrimination is forced to kill a man. Chato’s home and family are taken away by a posse to be used as bait to catch him. He defends himself using his knowledge of his native land and fights in defence of his life and family.

Chato is an excellent fighter and using cunning to outwit his cowboy posse pursuers, he fights with a calmness that suggests that violence comes natural to him, this character trait is carried across to Bishop the character played by Bronson in Winner’s next film, made that same year ‘The Mechanic’.

It is now we begin to see many running themes through Winner’s characters and narratives. These four films all share a vision of the world which is dark and menacing, they look upon our systems and ways of life. ‘Lawman’ attacks our laws, ‘The Nightcommers’ attacks our frailty and emotional vulnerability as humans, ‘Chato’s Land’ asks us to look at how we treat each other racially and how we wage war against each other, and ‘The Mechanic’ is about to show us a character who thrives upon all this violence.

To me there is no hidden message here, Winner is literally picking apart society piece by piece and giving us his views of what is going on in the world through these characters and their drama’s.

In ‘The Mechanic’ the protagonist is Bishop, a career minded hitman who is interested in survival. Bishop has used the violence of the world to make a pretty nice home for himself. He owns a plush pad complete with classical music and art works which he enjoys while calmly planning out his murders, suggesting like Chato in ‘Chato’s land’ he is literally at home with violence.

Bishop shares this with the protagonists in ‘Lawman’ and ‘The Nighcommers’ all these anti-hero’s have adapted to survive in a violent world their own way, with their own system. They are people who are

constantly on the defensive against all emotion and threats, and fight against anything that might rock the stability of their lives. They are lone heroes with their own codes of valour and survival, traits which are all now, in no small part thanks to these films, standards in the modern western and action genres.

Winner knew what he was doing when creating genre pieces too. He filled all his films whether western, action, drama or espionage with the traits of the genre. This guaranteed an audience and I believe this is why his films were commercially successful at the time. He was satisfying an audience by giving them what they wanted in these films, whether it be gunfights, action, explosions or great actors, yet underneath he was saying something for the more watchful viewer. He was using the text of an action film but using the sub text as a microscope to look at society and look at the human drama.

The difference in Winner’s films is that his heroes or anti-heroes are always venerable in some way and have huge character flaws. Some of them kill without conscious or force their dominance on others, while some, as Michael Winner himself put it when Burt Lancaster asked him “why would the ‘lawman’ shoot somebody in the back?” Winner replied “Because your character’s a total arsehole Burt” (3.p138 2004 Robson Books).All the lead protagonists that we are suppose to relate to in ‘Lawman, ‘The Mechanic’ and ‘The Nightcommers’ are the bad guys! Does that make us the bad guys?

Winners next two films film deal with similar character subjects and commentaries. In ‘Scorpio’ Lancaster plays a CIA operative, a dirty agent of espionage who is in charge of sensitive operations, this includes such foreign policies as assassinating presidents and starting coup’s. Lancaster’s bosses turn against him when he decides to retire. He knows too much and can’t be let go incase he decides to sell secrets or defect.

‘Scorpio’ is a very paranoid film as many were in the 70’s. Once again Winner is pulling apart the body of society and the politic of it. In this film the government are corrupt and fight against themselves in devious and terrible ways, always in the dark of parking garages and sewers. This was Winners go at the government system and how it handles the world and its affairs.

I feel this is a very underrated paranoia film from the early 70’s. It handles itself well and has a sullen yet darkly comic performance from Lancaster.

‘Scorpio’ is one of the only films to ever be allowed to film in the CIA headquarters. This might give you an idea of how much pull and respect Winner had at this time of his career.So far in the 1970’s Winner has dealt with our systems of Law, war, government, self control and profiteers of the violent world, his next film I think was to deal with the violence within the police force but… here comes the critic in me.

As much as this article is in defence of Winners work his next film, ‘The Stone Killer’ doesn’t do it for me in lots of ways. There is a great performance from Bronson and very good car chases and set pieces too, but there is a bumbling storyline and a lot of cheesy dialogue. I do however think as an action director The Stone Killer is winner’s best film, but

it is definitely a case of style over content. There are a few scenes where the main character reflects upon the world and the violence he see’s which are worth a mention. Alone looking in the mirror Bronson looks genuinely afraid and at odds with himself, I think this could have been where the story should have been headed but regretfully it didn’t. Lines like ‘A kid can buy a gun easier than a stick of bubble gum’ and police talks about the under class numbing the pain of living with junk, seem like this movie maybe did have a social comment at some point in the development stages, but it got lost along the way.

So if your up for a great looking action film ‘The Stone Killer’ is perfectly watchable, and as an action director maybe Winner’s best, but as a comment and look at the system of the police force this film fails for me.

There is however one really interesting bridge between this and Winner’s next film. While on a stakeout, the films protagonist, police inspector Lou Torry, says this to his partner:

“we’re chest deep in water screaming against the rushing tide, you know in the last three weeks in New York city alone there were 159 homicides, 3000 criminal assaults 6000 robberies, you multiply that by Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, LA” –

He then looks away at the criminals getting into their car and continues to his partner:

“You remember that cartoon of an old roman circus? where all the lions are roaring and the page boy yells down the corridor…You’ve got five minutes Christians”

Those words of a police officer threatening to take the law into his own hands, directly lead to Winner’s best known and most commercially successful film ‘Death Wish’.‘Death Wish’ is a bleak, disturbing and masterful piece of filmmaking, Winner finally brings his ideas out of the old west, the past and the fantastic and puts them right on our doorstep. His commentary on society is now on the violence in the suburban day to day world.The protagonist Paul Kersey is not a character from a genre or a person removed from reality such as a hitman or CIA operative. He is a modern middle class architect. This time Winner gives his character a family, a home, a run of the mill Monday to Friday job which he doesn’t want to return to from his holidays, and most importantly a conscious.Kersey is the sum of all the characters that proceeded him in the earlier films, he is a fully fleshed out three dimensional character, all the other characters were a blue print for kersey. This is the reason ‘Death Wish’ is Winner’s most successful film. It is almost like he was testing out his ideas until stream lining them down into ‘Death Wish’.Kersey’s conscious gives him a relatable quality that we see in our selves, this makes it so we understand his suffering and eventually his revenge. It is the first time in Winner’s 70’s films the lead character is one of us, the man at the bottom of the system upon which all the others are built to protect or destroy.

The story follows Kersey after his wife and daughter are attacked by a gang of muggers, his wife is killed and his daughter left in a coma after

her rape and torture. The law tells Kersey not to get his hopes up as there is little to go on, Kersey spirals into despair until an unexpected gift of an antique western hand gun gives him an attempt at revenge.

The gun in Death Wish is important it is a link to more lawless times as it is a gunslingers gun. This points to a time when men could protect themselves any way they deemed fit, comparing the lawless streets of modern day New York to the old west. Kersey becomes a killer not out of choice, but in response to the world attacking him and forcing him to face the violence within himself. Kersey is the answer to all the other questions of violence in the previous films, he becomes the poster for a generation that needs to fight back, he does what we would all like to do. He breaks through the repression of the system by taking the law into his own hands.

This is one of the reasons I look at these films as a collection and call ‘Death Wish’ the final film. Its like all the other characters that proceed Kersey’s are trying to break free from their systems of repression but they cannot. In ‘Death Wish’ one of Winner’s characters has some kind of an answer and a glimmer at hope, and although he becomes a killer in essence a bad guy, he has broken out of his system and had a kind of realisation and breakthrough in his life, the point which all these other films had been leading up to.

In the end kersey is like the rest of Winners characters in that he learns how to survive by his own terms in a savage world or muggers, rapists, robberies and murder. In a time when crime was rampant and New York was in the grip of a crimewave Winner simply put what he saw on the streets into art form and created a successful and brave film. ‘Death Wish’ is still talked about to this day and will talked about for a long time to come.

The film is now being remade by director Eli Roth and starring action hero Bruce Willis, but in this latest wave of Hollywood remakes I cant see any hope of it being a pinch on the original.

Throughout these films Michael Winner commented on society in all its forms, from top to bottom. Ending in 1974 with a film that showed us what society in its most terrifying form can do to an average man. He had a view and a message that he conveyed in these films by practicing his message again and again until in 1974 with ‘Death Wish’ he nailed it. He did what all great filmmakers do he told us great stories with intense drama. Michael Winner deserves respect as a filmmaker as he had the guts to put this stuff on screen. His charters are corrupt and downbeat because the world is corrupt and downbeat nothing in these films was sugar coated, it was right up in your face with a strong social comment and message. For these films alone Winner deserves respect as a director and entertainer.

For me Winner in these seven films held up a mirror to society and asked the question:

Is this really the reflection we want staring back at us?

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