Richard Lester Essay - Critical Essays

Lester, Richard


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."

John Seelye

[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 well, suggestions of nouvelle vague: the sequences in which the Beatles jape and juggle are presented in such a way as to remind one of the filmic high jinks in recent French movies. (pp. 53-4)

John Seelye, "'A Hard Day's Night'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1964 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 51-4.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

[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 not simply romantic idols, nor are they exactly comedians. They exist to a certain degree as individuals, but even more they function as a group. What they are presumably like as people in real life is not quite the same as the public image they cannot help projecting to the fans....

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Raymond Durgnat

[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 violence, all the eerier for being located in the style.

Raymond Durgnat, "'The Knack'" (© copyright by Raymond Durgnat 1965; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 10, July, 1965, p. 25.

John Seelye

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 same audience, and it somehow transcended its own purpose. (p. 58)

John Seelye, "'Help!'" in Film Quarterly (copyright 1965 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIX, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 57-8.

Philip French

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...

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Peter Harcourt

[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...

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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...

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Jules Feiffer

[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,...

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Penelope Houston

[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...

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Marsha Kinder

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...

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Richard Corliss

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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[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...

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Stephen Farber

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...

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Pauline Kael

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...

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Michael Dempsey

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...

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Richard Schickel

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...

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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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

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....

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James Monaco

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...

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Pauline Kael

[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...

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Penelope Gilliatt

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...

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John Simon

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...

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Judith Crist

[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...

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John Simon

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...

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Jay Cocks

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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

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,...

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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David Denby

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...

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