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Reviewed by:
  • Richard Lester
  • David Lancaster
Neil Sinyard Richard Lester Manchester University Press, 2010; 202 pages; $90.00

The Beatles’ first two films—A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965)—are not only delightful reminders of the band’s music, style and humor; they are also, perhaps, the finest examples of the British film musical. Seen today, these archetypal evocations of the Swinging Sixties still seem fresh and innovative, MTV some twenty years before the fact. In addition, they are expressed in what was then a “pop style”; George Melly once defined this as “a sophisticated innocence, a brilliant technique... and a shameless magpie-like eclecticism.” According to Neil Sinyard, the director of these films, Richard Lester, has been defined by that style and that era for far too long. This book, which is an updated version of a text first published in 1985, is an eloquent attempt to rescue the filmmaker from charges of superficial trickiness and to show that he is a neglected modern master.

Richard Lester was born in Philadelphia, but he first made his mark in British television. His film career began when he directed The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film in 1959, an eleven-minute home movie that featured Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. In time, this jeu d’esprit found its way to the Edinburgh Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award. Lester’s career was made. For the next thirty years, he directed films in a wide variety of genres, from Broadway adaptations like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), to surreal comedies such as The Bed Sitting Room (1969), historical romances (The Three Musketeers [1973]), and blockbuster spectaculars (Superman II [1981] and Superman III [1983]). Yet this disparate range of work does not mean that it was haphazard. This book makes a detailed case for Lester as an acute social critic, a master of pessimistic laughter and an artist of real eloquence.

Still, for Sinyard, the director is a prisoner of what the author calls his “youth trilogy,” his two Beatles films and The Knack (1965), an irreverent sex comedy set in swinging London. These productions were notable for reflecting the iconoclastic spirit of their times. For instance, A Hard Day’s Night [End Page 32] sees the Beatles as chirpy working class heroes, enjoying the modern phenomenon of pop stardom and cocking a snook at establishment figures and outmoded attitudes. Yet the approach is not superficial. Sinyard shows how Help! contains a criticism of celebrity’s essential emptiness. In this film, the lads from Liverpool may look like cheerful representatives of their class, but they are also seen as being trapped by stardom and losing touch with their roots. Lester’s cynicism about Sixties surface glitter can best be seen, according to the author, in Petulia (1968), a story of a doomed love affair between Julie Christie and George C Scott. In its complex flash-forward and flashback techniques, it is similar to Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) and is a bitter indictment of the “summer of love” and its materialistic excesses.

In the 1970s, Lester scored a big hit with two films about Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Sinyard is at his best when he is delving beneath the slapstick surfaces of these swashbucklers and showing the antiheroic attitudes of its director and his sharp eye for comedy rooted in brutal social realities. It is pleasing, too, to see a detailed examination of Juggernaut (1974), a little-known “disaster” film that Sinyard sees as an extended metaphor for the disastrous state of Britain at the time. The story concerns a mysterious terrorist who has placed a bomb on board a luxury liner. Lester extracts a lot of bitter comedy from the bewildered attitudes of the passengers and, in particular, the near hysterical desperation of the Entertainment Officer, who tries to retain a facade of normality by jollying people along with an attempt at the conga. This hapless character is played by the wonderful British character actor, Roy Kinnear, who appeared in many of Lester’s films and died in an accident during the making of The Return of...


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pp. 32-33
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