Richard Lester 1932–
American director and television producer.
Lester's style often recalls the old days of slapstick and silent films. His most successful films combine a frenetic pace with visual gags.
Lester left for Europe at the age of twenty-two. While there, he wrote a musical and took it to England in hopes of selling it. His visit was timely, coinciding with the debut of commercial television. Lester not only sold the musical, but found a job as a television director. With Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, Lester wrote for The Goon Show, an improvisational comedy series. The collaboration of Lester, Sellers, and Milligan led to a short film, The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film. This rough, virtually unedited film was an outgrowth of The Goon Show.
Beginning in 1963, Lester made two films with the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night and Help! Here the surrealistic comedy of The Goon Show is combined with the Beatles's own unique brand of humor. However, a few critics contended that Lester indulged in visual tricks excessively.
Lester's style has varied from film to film. While How I Won the War is filled with black humor; Robin and Marian is a sentimental romance. Petulia is an incisive satire; Juggernaut is a suspenseful adventure film. In the words of Richard T. Jameson, the best of Lester's films have made "eloquence of frenzy." As Jameson writes: "From the snowfields of 'Ticket to Ride' in Help! to the out-of-focus shimmers of light and color framing the microcosmic Juggernaut, the extreme busyness of his films and frames has always been deployed against nothingness."
[The] three motifs introduced during the early moments of [A Hard Day's Night]—running (flight), antagonism towards the establishment (order), and subsequent mayhem (misrule)—are extended by variation throughout the remainder of the action. The unifying tension is that which exists between the harried manager of the troupe … and his obstreperous charges, a good-natured badinage which has, as always in such cases, an underlying darkness. The Manager wants them to "behave," to "shape up," to "stop clowning around." They, on the other hand, seek to escape his supervision and to disobey his orders. One is invariably reminded of a group of school boys on an outing in the charge of a bullying but ineffectual master. (p. 53)
Hard Day's Night is different from the usual pap. For one thing, it is technically exciting—in both senses of the words. The camera is very much alive: it runs, it jumps, it seldom is caught standing still. Unlike the bland flatness of the Elvis movies (which are reminiscent of the old SatEvePost illustrations), the image on the screen has depth. Gilbert Taylor, the cameraman, takes his techniques as he finds them, and he finds them everywhere. Much of the acting is apparently designed to suggest improvisation, and the camera assists this by a pseudo-documentary awkwardness. As in a documentary, the camera is insistently there, probing, pointing, pursuing, predicating. There are, as...
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[A Hard Day's Night] is a shining illustration of the often untenable maxim about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. In the first place the Beatles themselves collectively, as a group and governing ungrammatically the singular verb, is (or are) clearly much more than simple Paul, John, George and Ringo. The same principle holds good for the film, which, broken down into its individual components, is pretty poor and insipid stuff. It is not in the conventional sense well written, having no construction to speak of and dialogues which no American director of musicals would look at and which are for the most part a lot less lively than the Beatles' own spontaneous repartee. It can hardly be called well directed, unless you believe that the rapid gyrations of a hand-held camera are intrinsically more exciting or cinematic than more usual methods, which is patently not true. (p. 196)
And yet it works. And it works, or so it seems to me, on a level at which most British films, particularly the bigger and more pretentious, don't manage to get going at all…. A Hard Day's Night, though not exactly a film d'auteur, is in all other respects exactly the opposite. It is utterly slapdash, but it is consistent with itself. It works as a whole. It is coherent and has a sense of direction to it and a point.
The key to it lies in the personality, or non-personality, of the protagonists. They are...
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[The Knack is] crazy, but not twee, since the whimsy has a good sound emotional springboard, in all the embarrassments and yearnings that beset teenagers in their efforts to reach one another. It's a very frank film, and it translates into modern terms the sexual grotesquerie that was part of the charm of the dear old Crazy Gang—as when the hero, clambering over some park railings to save the heroine from a fate worse than death, gets his fly-buttons hooked on the spikes, and hangs there immobilised. The film has a demented ubiquity of sexual innuendo: Tolen, offering to play Nancy some records, promises, 'You'll like Theolonius—he's deep—he's satisfying—', and Tom worries Colin by commenting, on the subject of elephant's trunks, that 'any limb that isn't in constant use atrophies and drops off'….
The erotomaniac humour is nicely counterpointed by a volley of anarchist-spirited jokes, with a double-bedstead weaving in and out of the traffic like a Kon-Tiki raft, and a real little classic gag about a kindly old gentleman gallantly helping pregnant [Nancy] across the road….
The weak point of The Knack is, precisely, a tendency to lose a scene's point in a fandango of gags. At times, certainly, it captures [the atmosphere of Ann Jellicoe's play, on which the film is based,] very well…. But the film's so funny that, as a whole, it dissipates the play's emotional voltage, its anxious strain and...
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There is, I would say, very little of the censor laws' "redeeming social significance" [in Help!]. Unlike Hard Day's Night, which by means of a picaresque structure ran through a series of wonderful satiric sketches, Help! is a hapless farce from beginning to end, with many a limp-wristed flap at expected targets: mad science, Scotland Yard, James Bond movies. Even Terry Southern gets a fingery flutter. But there is no point, no bite, no edge. It's cotton candy, and in wide-screen Technicolor. From the few side remarks that I caught—and the Liverpuddlian accents still muffle a lot of meaning—the thing may be one huge in-joke, hinging on the farcical plot in which a fat caliph tries to recover a mystical ring now being worn by the unknowing Ringo. (pp. 57-8)
In all truth, however, there is little cause for complaint. The film was made for Beatle fans, like all the rest of the paraphernalia of magazines, wigs, photographs, posters. We can rejoice that it never stoops to the Elvis-epicac level, that it is sumptuous, expensive, unsparing in color, sound, and all the sensuous elements available to the modern film-maker. There is no feeling of vulgar waste, moreover—except as a monument or a circus involves a certain amount of conspicuous redundance—no sense of film-flam. You go and you have a good time, without feeling that you are being pandered to. Still, the first Beatle film was made for the...
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The eleven minutes of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film immediately established [Richard Lester's] rapport with Goonery, [the British comedy school of the 1950's]. With it Lester found a visual style that was absent from earlier Goon films … and present only intermittently in the television Goon programs which he directed…. There is the use of silent film techniques, the camera trickery, the Sisyphian surrealism of scrubbing the grass, the brutal slapstick of the hand luring the simpleton across the field only to sock him for his pains, the comic chauvinism of the Union Jack-bedecked kite being prepared for spaceflight, and the nostalgic sepia tone print of the film itself. All these elements together with the mood of tough yet relaxed inconsequentiality, the pursuit of logic beyond the bounds of sanity, the rather disturbing national ambivalence … were to reappear later. (p. 369)
[With It's Trad Dad!, Lester] seized the opportunity to make one of the most extraordinarily inventive movies of the last ten years which is not only highly amusing but gently satirized its own convention as well. Using a Hellzapoppin-type narrator who talks to the actors and assists in furthering the action, the film opens with the statement that the place in which the story is set must remain nameless—and there, sure enough, is the "You are now entering" sign on the outskirts of the town with the name missing. (p....
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[In] Help!, the most wonderful transformations of reality occur.
Richard Lester's style is one of endless enterprise, of an apparently inexhaustible zaniness that can become wearying by the end. Well-trained in the techniques of his trade by making advertising films, he clearly takes pleasure in all the tricks of focus and exposure, in the strange effects a camera can achieve; and in Help! he has responded with great freshness to the possibilities of colour. Throughout the film, especially during the songs, he has striven to create a visual quality that is as thoughtless and carefree as the singing itself. Everything is light-hearted, everything is played for laughs…. [In] the most inventive sequence of the film, the one shot in the Alps, while we listen to their "She's got a Ticket to Ride" number, we watch bizarre images of them clowning about in the snow, all dressed in black, sometimes perched upon a grand piano isolated in the wilderness with a surrealist absurdity, sometimes skiing and tumbling about with the kind of quick-cutting and trick effects that we associate with the Keystone Cops. But these visual gags, successful though they are, are really imposed upon the music. The kids of all ages throughout the world do not laugh when they are listening to the Beatles. These fans are more moved than that.
For there is about the Beatles a kind of purity of appeal, a winning simplicity of...
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Alfred R. Sugg
[The] fact that no one has taken Mr. Lester to task for creating a fiction-nonfiction … indicates that the film—unlike literature—is a basically ambivalent art.
Once the fiction-nonfiction phrase has been uttered with respect to the Beatles films, however, we must admit that that is precisely their peculiar strength, illustrated perhaps best by the brilliant opening shots of Help! where we see the Beatles (in black and white) documentarily photographed exactly like the Tommy Dorsey orchestra used to be photographed in order to drive the customers out to buy popcorn. No sooner have we adjusted to this thing—image relation with the world, however, than the "screen" is suddenly struck by colored darts. The black-and-white shots of the Beatles were not documentary at all, but a film within a film. The darts did not come from the back of theatre, but from the fiction, where the Beatles' images also have a fictional role (i.e., that of dartboard!). But the cry of Help! which this role surely elicits (they are constantly bombarded) never eclipses its relevance to their reality outside the fiction. Just as with A Hard Day's Night, we feel that the whole structure of Help! is an expression of the performers' painful positions in the real world, where they are chased, stared at, and bombarded by us, the fans. (p. 8)
[The Beatles as entertainers are relatively unimportant to the value of the...
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[In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum] Richard Lester has painted on film a manic montage of vaudeville turns, girlie-book jokes, movie bits and gag cartoons that congeal, magically, into art…. With Designer Tony Walton he has built an ancient Rome noble only in its houses of debauchery and steeped everywhere else in a middle-class decay that could easily make it a First Century Watts. Within this he manages, quite improbably, to expand space to the point of infinity and suffuse it with the light of a Steinberg cartoon.
Forum on stage was a raucous, rakish, baggy-toga burlesque, set slightly off-balance by its star, Zero Mostel, whose talent gave it an unneeded class, and, again off-balance, by a score with more wit and urbanity than audiences, under the circumstances, were prepared to listen to. Delightful though it was, the show was not of one piece and never really up to the not terribly well-matched styles of Mostel and Composer-Lyricist Sondheim. What was needed to meld all elements together was the sharp identity Lester brings to all his work, so that on film the show becomes not the mixed bag it was on stage, but a further sighting into the prankish environs of Richard Lester, as fixed an orbit, in its way, as the worlds of Welles and Fellini. (p. 10)
Jules Feiffer, "A Manic Montage of Raucous Rome," in Life (courtesy of Life Magazine; © 1966...
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[On the one hand, Lester's film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has] the framework of [Bert] Shevelove and [Larry] Gelbart's Broadway hit, its slow fuse Jewish-American humour, its carefully set up jokes about dithering middle-aged men and bullying wives let loose in Brooklyn-on-Tiber. This humour takes time: above all, time for the actors to build contact with the audience. On the other hand, there is Richard Lester's style, glancing, cool, nerveless, and dependent on perpetual motion. Lester seems to circle the comedy, jabbing, weaving, feinting, hardly landing a solid punch.
What works with the Beatles, in fact, won't do when the actors are a generation older, and physically more resistant to the whole idea of being stood on their heads…. Style, as the film progresses, becomes more and more like conscientiously strenuous decoration, an effort to manufacture exuberance. Why take a shot upside-down; or flick through half-a-dozen of the briefest, most eye-straining glimpses of the characters; or turn a song into a display exercise for the camera, shuffling through locations as though they were playing cards? The only answer would seem to be, why not….
Too much of the [film] is either frantically diversified action (a chariot-chase, for instance, which gathers speed without comic momentum), or an effort to lift the text almost bodily across the footlights…. And the film slips away down the...
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The Knack makes a serious satirical statement about certain middle-class attitudes which have found new expression in youthful approaches to sex. Tolen's knack with women is acquired by adapting to sex a number of traditional middle-class attitudes toward work and material success. He sees girls as fancy gadgets to be manipulated, as interchangeable objects who look and act alike. In order to manipulate them successfully, one must acquire the knack. The only halfway human relationships established are not between manipulator and object, but between those who have the knack and those who are trying to get it; and such relationships are essentially competitive.
The knack is compared with two kinds of activity, both competitive. First, the knack is portrayed as a marketable skill in a commercial society…. This analogy is dramatized when Nancy goes to buy a dress. The salesman uses his sexual line to sell dresses; it is almost impossible to distinguish between the commercial and sexual pitch….
Just as the salesman has a stock speech that he repeats to all customers, so the women consumers also have a stock response. When Nancy goes from door-to-door crying "rape," one woman replies with "not today," a typical stock response to salesmen. (p. 30)
In the hilarious scene where Colin ineffectually tries to use a hammer, nails and screws to bar his front door, the knack is related to the Protestant...
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How I Won the War is, at its best, a stinging study of war's corruption, a stringent depicting of war's large lies—stratagems, if you like—and small ones…. How I Won the War shows the moral side [of war]. And it is … a brave film….
Lester could have been braver—if he had made a film condemning the American position in Vietnam, for example (War does contain one gratuitous reference to the current police action), or the Israeli military mystique in the Middle Eastern War—but we are not asking the man to slit his cinematic wrists as a gesture of protest. If he has not gone far enough in satirizing war, he has at least gone further than any other commercial film-maker…. (p. 35)
Lester's choice of World War II, a conflict that can be justified as an act of self-defense against National Socialism, forces him into the position—which he accepts gladly—that all war is (his term) obscene. This raises the standard question: if Country A marches on Country B with the objective of demolishing or appropriating B, isn't B required to bear arms in an attempt to save the lives of its people? Lester dodges this question. He simply says that, once involved in a war, everyone is tainted—a general philosophy a lot less radical than the sum of its brutal parts. In his death speech, the soldier played by John Lennon says, "I fought this war for three reasons. The first one got me in. I don't...
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[The least of Lester's early films] had scintillating moments, and the best of them are fireworks displays that spell out some secrets of our times. [How I Won the War] is Lester at his very best. (p. 30)
[The] script, filigreed with good wiry dialogue, serves as a fine trampoline for Lester. These are numerous "plants" of material—visual and verbal—to which later reference is made, too neatly modulated to be called running gags. There is a barrage of parodic transformations. For instance, a blimpish colonel gives the lieutenant a gung-ho speech in a dugout. When the camera pulls back at the end of his exhortation, the dugout—suddenly—is on a stage, and the curtain descends as the colonel finishes roundly. (Lester does not leave it there. The audience in that theater is sparse and the applause is slack.) A number of incidents are swiftly replayed in different settings, as in a spoof of Marienbad. The music yawns scoffingly: whenever we cut back to these bedraggled desert rats, we get a swell of grandiose Oriental goo on the soundtrack in Lawrence of Arabia style. And we are continually reminded that the whole thing is a film. (p. 31)
With the light-fingered help of his editor, John Victor Smith, Lester caroms the film off a series of colored bubble gum pictures of WW II battles—cheap unreal icons of events that Lester makes more truly unreal. Yes, the film tells us that war is hell and...
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It is impossible to talk about what Petulia means without talking about how it is structured and composed; form, for once, is truly indistinguishable from content. (p. 67)
Larry Marcus's script and Lester's direction of Petulia constantly play against sentimentality…. The love scenes between Archie and Petulia are all joyless—an abortive tryst at a remote-controlled motel, where registration, room location, even sexual stimulation are done by machine; a jaunt through a tomblike supermarket late at night; an awkward, fumblingly lustful embrace in Archie's car. Even Petulia and Archie's night together is austerely filmed…. Lester has never dealt convincingly with love (he has usually not even tried), but here he turns that weakness into strength: his peculiarly unromantic temperament transforms what might have been mawkish material into a bitter but compassionate drama of human isolation. (pp. 67-8)
The melancholy in all of [Archie's and Petulia's] encounters makes the futility of their relationship clear enough, but the structure of the scenes is, again, even more telling. Lester and Marcus shatter time in fascinating ways…. [The] intercutting of one character's present with another character's past—I can't think of any clear precedent in other films—gives us exactly the feeling that Lester must have wanted to convey, the sense of two lives being lived simultaneously, intersecting but...
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There is a sequence of a girl dancing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but the director, Richard Lester, breaks it up so much with camera and editing that we can't see the dance, only flashes of parts of her body, and we can't even tell if the girl can dance because the movement is almost totally supplied by his means. This technique is a good one for concealing the ineptitude of performers, but Lester's short-term camera magic keeps cutting into and away from the comedians …, who never get a chance to develop a routine or to bring off a number. What are we being distracted from?…
[Seeing] the result, we get the sense that Lester thinks it would be too banal just to let us see a dance or a pair of comedians singing a duet. Yet if they're good, they're a lot less banal than camera movement designed to cover emptiness. We go to see great clowns precisely for the way they move, for the grace and lightness of their style. The marvel of burlesque is that those lewd men become beautiful: their timing and skill transform the lowest forms of comedy. When Lester supplies the rhythms for them by film editing he takes away the one great asset of burlesque: that triumph of style which converts leering into art. He takes away their beauty and they become ugly and gross; he turns artists back into mugging low comics. (He also uses the women execrably: they are blank-faced bodies or witless viragos.) (p....
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Working with a brashly theatrical script (the John Antrobus-Spike Milligan play), Lester predictably opens [The Bed Sitting Room] up by spreading the scenes across a vast landscape. But he also insists on the play's theatricality and tries for a visual style that will combine both approaches. (p. 33)
[Lester] succeeds where he failed in How I Won the War. The earlier movie also featured caricatures going through hopefully surrealistic routines, but the director failed to stylize the locations. Thus, the actions and the dialogues … took place against quite ordinary backgrounds. The clash wrecked the movie, made it both unfunny and uninvolving. In The Bed Sitting Room, whose dialogue and acting are far superior, Lester provides settings congruent with his caricatures. Thus, even when they go astray, the actors never look like your lead-brained neighbors shooting 8mm monkeyshines on their front lawn. This fusion of styles is highly unstable. (pp. 33-4)
This method, which provides no "real" people with whom we can "identify," makes for a "cold" film. Though artists and critics … are strenuously questioning the concepts of characterization and feeling in literature, film audiences still seem to want the most naive kind of "warmth," an emotional bath in which they can splash around. But Lester avoids emotionalism. He has enough sense to cool off an overheated subject and present it with perspective....
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Petulia is a terrific movie, at once a sad and savage comment on the ways we waste our time, our money and ourselves in upper-middle-class America. It is a subject much trifled with in movies these days, but rarely—if ever—has it been tackled with the ferocious and ultimately purifying energy displayed in this highly moral, yet unmoralistic, film.
Its strength stems from two sources, the passionate intensity with which director Richard Lester fastens his camera's eye on the inanimate artifacts of our consumer culture and the complex, highly charged (but subtly controlled) style—rather like a mosaic set in very rapid motion—with which he presents his vision of a world where the thing is king, an absolute sovereign holding all of us in thrall…. ["The visible hieroglyphs of the unseen world" are] the true subject of Petulia. A fully mechanized motel, a parody of a Playboy bachelor's pad, an inhumanly efficient hospital (a sort of medical factory)—what these hieroglyphs tell us about the true quality of our unseen world, the doomed hopes for ease and grace they contain! In a sense Lester is practicing in art what we all attempt in daily life—reading character by studying a man's possessions, which in the day of standardized people is a very useful gift. And from the place his characters choose to eat lunch, from the show flickering on an unwatched TV set in the corner, from the stuff they give their kids,...
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David L. Overbey
[The Three Musketeers] is well within the tradition of … the swashbuckling sub-genre. Although there is none of the fragmented narration through the editing which one usually associates with Lester …, the fragmentation through anarchic humour of a serious world view remains part of the Lester method. There is a constant rush of jokes on every level, from the traditional slapstick surrounding insanely furious sequences of swordplay to near-whispered comic comment by a set of court dwarves. Characters are conceived in comically larger than life, so that the usually romantic Constance … is here beautiful but clumsy—falling down stairs, walking into walls, or catching her foot in a pail of water while being embraced by D'Artagnan…. Most of the comedy works well. When it doesn't, we are faced with a problem in the modern cinema which must have given Lester, too, more than a few moments of puzzlement as he worked with the material….
A work like The Three Musketeers has at least two facets, one romantically 'serious' and the other rather fantastic adventure. Certainly, as previous versions have indicated, the latter aspect is open to comedy (perhaps necessarily so), whereas the more 'serious' aspects of plot—those concerning Milady de Winter and the Queen's diamonds—are more problematical. One does not, of course, expect a historical political treatise on the period of Louis XIII and Richelieu. Dumas was not...
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The Three Musketeers is full of action, dash, and slapstick, and it depressed me very much. This is Richard Lester's first picture since The Bed Sitting Room (1969), a picture that showed a sad lapse in Lester's judgment of scripts though not in his unique and wonderful filmic style. The Three Musketeers has a sounder script, but it shows an absolute abandonment of the style that made Lester Lester. Such films as A Hard Day's Night and The Knack and How I Won the War overflow with imaginative pyrotechnics that manage to be brilliant and helpful at the same time. The Three Musketeers overflows with nothing but what must in Lester's case be called conventional ebullience. It tries to render the Dumas novel as action comedy and, if memory is serving, it takes that vein somewhat further than the Doublas Fairbanks version did. Here it's not only D'Artagnan who is a somewhat overheroic hero; virtually all the other characters except Richelieu are used for laughs, one way or another. But none of it is Lester comedy, cinematic eruption. Almost all of it is script-y, devised, derivative—and harmful to Dumas. (pp. 274-75)
The script, by George Macdonald Fraser, is a sequence of stunts and set pieces, rather than a strong sequential narrative. D'Artagnan and his three friends are stripped of character and become interchangeable brawlers—so Dumas is robbed of his nice touches of sentiment. And...
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Seen today, [Lester's] little jeu d'esprit [The Running, Jumping, and Standing-Still Film] is reminiscent of nothing so much as Georges Méliès, Mack Sennett, and early American comedy; and it foreshadows in Lester's work that important strain of Goon Show humor which he will later apply to topics of Universal Significance. (p. 26)
[A Hard Day's Night] is a critical essay on the subject of Beatlemania and media manipulation and, at the same time, the most successful hype in the history of the Beatle myth. This is characteristic, really, of nearly all Lester's films: that they analyze what they are doing at the same time that they do it. And, as always, the form that Lester chooses is equally important here: a quasidocumentary about the group and about the people in it, and about the fierce pressures of media adulation: the crowding, the hysteria, the hotel-room claustrophobia, the lock-step schedule, and most important, the psychological tension which operates on four human beings as they become transformed into archetypes and debased into stereotypes….
The "media-ization" of the Sixties turned public images into social metaphors more vital than the private personalities of the people who bore those images—and that's what Lester did with the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night. He also made an entertaining movie, full of high spirits and good music….
While the Beatles...
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[Juggernaut is fast], crackerjack entertainment, with the cool, bitchy wit and the outrageously handsome action sequences of some of the best of the Bond pictures. It's surprisingly crisp fun, considering that it was directed by that most misanthropic of talented directors, Richard Lester. Though he eliminates practically every trace of human warmth, he manages to supply the characters with enough blackhearted existential bravado to keep the film sociable. Anybody who makes a picture like this one has to be a bit of a bastard, but Lester demonstrates what a sophisticated director with flair can do on a routine big-action project. (p. 347)
Lester lets you know right from the start that if the genre is basically the same as that of The Poseidon Adventure the tone certainly won't be…. He doesn't go in for scenes of panic or screaming hysteria; instead, he has the ship's social director … constantly rebuffed in his attempts to cheer people up. Where the usual disaster film gives us pathos, Lester gives us slapstick. The movie is a commentary on other directors' groveling for audience response.
Those not used to Richard Lester's neo-Noël Coward mixture of cynicism, angst, and anti-establishment sentimentality (is there anybody more British than an American convert?) may at first be thrown. He's a compulsive gagster, but the jokes are throwaway-fast and tinged with contempt. He uses famous actors, but he...
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The extension [of "The Three Musketeers" into "The Four Musketeers"] exists for a reason that is perfectly in keeping with the cheerful chaos of the work as a whole: meaning to shoot one film,… Lester simply shot enough footage for two films and decided to cut the thing down the middle with a headsman's axe…. (p. 79)
As one result of the Siamese-twin operation on the film, we get a rapid blast of the-plot-so-far delivered to us like grapeshot at the beginning of Part II. No one is likely to make head or tail of it, but then no one is likely to care, either. I daresay that if Dumas were alive he would turn in his grave,… but I don't suppose Lester's audiences, rapt in the high-speed bawdry of his film, are going to give the relatively staid original author much of a thought. There isn't the time; there isn't the sobriety. A spirit of unstoppable slapstick reigns over the picture, and cohesiveness is nowhere. Things go by fits and starts: giggling fits, false starts. The pratfall is king, and his queen is a particular kind of schoolboy pleasure in anachronism in which antique speech is always taking rude turns and, you feel, having the reviving effect on bored children of gazing out of the classroom window on a hot day when a master is droning on about the unchristianity of cruel wars' being fought between fellow-Christians. This is the thesis of the picture, if rampage can be said to have a thesis. (pp. 79-80)
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Intelligent reinterpretation is one thing; sensationalistic or smartass revisionism, quite another. [In Robin and Marian] we take Robin Hood, his merry men, and Maid Marian, but show them as middle-aged folk in an autumnal mood, at the end of their chivalric tether. We connect the story even more tightly than usual with Richard the Lionhearted by having Robin and Little John fight under him in the Third Crusade, and making the film begin at Châluz, where Richard meets his end….
That is revisionism for you! Knighthood, so far from being in flower, is mostly weeds and nettles, and even they are going to seed. Sir Walter Scott's hero-king has become a moody tyrant, and when legend is not countered with wanton deflation, facts are chosen for their somberness….
What's wrong with revisionism having a field day? A little of it, on acceptable historical premises, is perfectly welcome…. But I find this systematic debunking quite cheap: what yields a shoddier, more facile effect than standing tradition on its head? It is not all that different from painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. (p. 81)
Heroes haven't gone at all. It is only paltry sentimentalists like [screenwriter James] Goldman—and perhaps Lester, under his superficial toughness—that consider heroes a wonderful, lost breed; in fact, they exist as much, or as little, as they ever did, even if they no longer wield broadswords or...
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[Robin and Marian provides] a worldly, wise, and witty response to our eternal wonderment about how our heroes lived ever after, happily or not….
[It is] a story as satisfying as any that came before, and far, far richer in nuance, detail, and pertinence, thanks to two masters of the genre—screenwriter James Goldman … and director Richard Lester…. Both know the blend of anachronism and actuality that puts vitality into the past and resurrects the figures in long-ago landscapes; both sense the starkness of the realism underlying the romantic adventure, the frailty of heroes who have human instincts, the fullness of living that obliterates our historic awareness of the transience of life….
[It] is a legend in itself, of heroes who grow old in flesh but not in spirit, who can still have a glory day. Lions in autumn—with all its crispness and glow. (p. 44)
Judith Crist, "Sherwood Ever After," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 3, No. 14, April 17, 1976, pp. 44, 47.∗
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Richard Lester is a competent farce director, whether he is directing farce or anything else. Yet [The Ritz] falls, unfarcically, flat….
[Farce], especially the kind that depends on a multiplicity of doors flying open and shut as ill-assorted people rush through them toward outrageous consequences, needs … stage space to play with. The buzzing human insects must describe bizarre trajectories, inscribe absurd patterns in their boxlike space, to illustrate the whims of that waggish demiurge variously identified as author, director, or life. Take away the spatial antics of farce, its solid geometry, and you're left with a flimsy contrivance.
Which does not mean that the filmmakers cannot refeel and rethink the farce in terms of the new dimensions and perimeters…. [But] Lester did not muster that camera energy that distinguishes even his lesser efforts. It may also be that Hollywood did not want to rub the noses of the provinces in all that pederasty with which the public bath, where the action takes place, is awash. Certainly some of the more "daring" lines of the play are not in the movie.
The best thing is an opening closeup of an egg yolk slithering through an hourglass. I have no idea whether this is an old Italian custom at death vigils, a proleptic reference to what the film will wind up with all over its face, or a piece of pure surrealism like Dali's melting watches. Whatever it is,...
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Antic, frantic, mechanical but amusing anyhow, The Ritz is of particular interest because it is the first major movie about homosexuality that does not give a thought to redeeming social value. There is not a trace of seriousness in The Ritz. In both the traditional and contemporary meanings of the word, it is a gay movie. (p. 72)
Richard Lester, who seems to work almost as fast as Googie Gomez talks … keeps the proceedings right on his customary sardonic course. Lester obeys the first law of this kind of farce, bestowing his sidelong misanthropy equally on straight characters and gays. (p. 73)
Jay Cocks, "Bubble Bath," in Time (copyright 1976 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 108, No. 9, August 30, 1976, pp. 72-3.
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As far as theme is concerned, [Butch and Sundance: The Early Days] might as well be called The Deer Hunter: The Early Days. Once more we plunge into the primal American myth of male friendship: why this friendship and its adventures are the best things in life; how women are meant to watch and wait and understand, with a brave grave sigh, that men must be off on their manly doings. The fact that the doings in the case of B and S are outlawry—theft, violence, and, eventually, murder—matters little under the grand rubric of light-hearted, essentially boyish male palship.
What a bore it is, that idea, that American idea…. But because it is part of our heritage, sometimes it can be exploited affectingly: with limited charm, as in the first B and S (1969) or by direct visceral grapple, as in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. When the charm is merely laborious, as in the new B and S, or when the visceral appeal falls very short, as it does here, the result is tedious—even repellent….
[It's] really Part One, as its subtitle tells us. It spends its time trying to plant antecedents for the earlier [George Roy Hill film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid]—a jump into a river, a train robbery—and it has no shape. It's just a series of adventures, which could have been shorter or longer, and none of the adventures is amusing or exciting or moving….
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The good news is that Butch and Sundance: The Early Days can stand on its own four feet without making us sob longingly for the original. Lester has achieved a cooler and more distant tone for the material than did the redhot Hill before him…. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is worth a look simply for its wit, humor, and expertise. It is such a relief to see a clever movie for a change that the absence of emotional explosions may not seem like such a dreadful handicap. A respected colleague sitting next to me at the screening complained that Lester had indulged in much ado about nothing. I can understand this reaction. Lester has often been too ornate for his own good, and there have been more than a few occasions when he has cultivated visual beauty for its own sake….
The point is that if audiences seek rollicking fun in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days they will be disappointed, but if they are content with a stylish proto-buddy-buddy entertainment rendered with a muted pathos and longing they will almost be enchanted. I say "almost" because there remains something tentative and undefined in the nature of the adventure. One is never sure what is at stake in the entwined destinies of the two characters. Do they really long for a normal life, or are they already lusting for legendary status? Perhaps there have been too many movies on the subject of the Old West being swept away by Modern Times, and Lester...
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Against the background of a return to flag-waving patriotism, demonically derisive movies like Richard Lester's Cuba … seem suddenly anachronistic in the very casualness of their anti-American assumptions…. Americans are not merely ugly, but grotesquely hideous. Certainly, [Lester did not] set out to make any overt political statements, to win over any hearts and minds, as it were. Cuba, though shot in Spain, treats Castro's triumphant entrance into Havana in 1959 as if it were the Second Coming of Christ, or, at the very least, the ideological equivalent of Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station. Lester and his scenarist, Charles Wood, are not "selling" Castro to the non-Marxist infidels. They are commemorating his historically "inevitable" victory in the context of the slightly comical spectacle of greed and venality in the last days of the Batista regime….
[If] the chaos of Cuba is in the background of the film, the romance of Casablanca is clearly in the foreground, and it is in its foreground that Cuba fails most dismally…. By the time we get the final shootout between the Castro and Batista forces, Lester has completely lost control of the movements of his characters on his historical chessboard, and the picture as a whole joins that fascinating and proliferating category assigned for the Ambitious Failure….
The Americans in Cuba are inelegant to a fault (Lester's...
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The switch of directors from Richard Donner to Richard Lester [during production of the Superman movies] may have involved more than window dressing and contractual squabbles, but it is difficult from this corner to sort out the Donner footage from the Lester footage and assign responsibility and meaning for each….
Still, I suspect that the switch from Donner to Lester has resulted in a perceptible shift from the rollicking adventurousness of Superman I with its intimations of a happily unfurrowed brow, to a mood of pessimism and disenchantment in Superman II. Again, I got the feeling of decline and fall from the very first shot of the skyline around the Daily Planet. The screen seemed comparatively gray and somber, and then the next scene seemed equally gray and somber, and so on and so forth. Superman I seemed in retrospect glossier, shinier, livelier. The change may not be due just to Lester's dark, uneasy fragmented view of human existence, but also to an inevitable evolution of the screen Superman. In his first incarnation, he was superior in strength to everyone he encountered on earth. In Superman II he is pitted against superfiends from his own planet, and the contest hangs in the balance almost to the end.
Andrew Sarris, "Surprise! Two Super Films" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications,...
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The original Superman, directed by Richard Donner, was one of the most disjointed, stylistically mixed-up movies ever made. The mystico-sublime rubbed elbows with low farce and pop irony, and everything gave way to disaster-movie squareness in the end. But now all is well. Richard Lester, of Beatles-movie fame, took over the direction of Superman II, and Lester has brought unity and a high style to the material. The fantasy and playfulness that Lester has always striven for fall to him easily this time, and without the nagging, jumpy irritability that turned so many of his other movies sour. (pp. 49-50)
Superman II is still a pop daydream, but it has its roots in common feelings …, and the emotion enlarges the fantasy, takes the pre-packaged gleam off it. (p. 50)
David Denby, "The Decline and Fall of Mel Brooks," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1981 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 25, June 22, 1981, pp. 48-50.∗
(The entire section is 160 words.)