June 13, 1943 – Malcolm McDowall
In a career spanning over 50 years, the talented McDowell has played varied film roles across many genres. Most people think of his Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange (1971), or maybe the title character in Tinto Brass‘s demented Caligula (1979), but I usually think of his role as Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson‘s trilogy: If…. (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).
He will be seen as the father of Trumpism, Rupert Murdoch,in Fair And Balanced directed by Jay Roach, just a part of an amazing ensemble cast that includes: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow,(as Roger Ailes!) Allison Janney, and Kate McKinnon. Fair And Balanced is set to be released this coming holiday season.
One of my favorite science fiction flicks is the charming Time After Time (1979), directed by Nicholas Meyer, released the same year as Caligula. It’s a fantastic battle of wits and wills between a clueless yet dogged H.G. Wells (McDowall) and a ruthless, utterly sinister and unrepentant Jack the Ripper played by David Warner, a role you would have expected McDowell to have done. This is a delightful, entertaining bon-bon of a film that shows both the possibilities and limitations of taking liberties with literature and history. Meyer deftly juxtaposes Victorian England and America in the 1970s in a clever story, irresistible due to a smart, funny-yet-tense screenplay by Meyer and great work by the actors, including a delicious Mary Steenburgen in only her second film. The moody cinematography by Paul Lohmann is appropriately open and light or tight, dark and threatening, as needed. Plus, there is a wonderful score from composer Miklos Rozsa.
Filmed all over San Francisco, back when San Francisco was still San Francisco, I saw it in its original run and have always loved it. Here is the conceit: H.G. Wells didn’t just write his novel The Time Machine but built a working model of the machine himself. And, unbeknownst to Wells, a cornered Jack the Ripper uses it to escape, traveling forward to 1970s America, forcing the usually reserved Wells to pursue the bloody serial killer across time. Brilliant!
Some might think McDowell was an odd choice for the sweet natured Wells since he is so associated with the hate-filled twitchy teen in A Clockwork Orange, but he is simply terrific here; introverted and brilliant yet full of wide-eyed innocence as a hopelessly lost Wells. Warner is a chilling adversary in his understated performance as Jack the Ripper. Whenever I read anything about Jack the Ripper, it is Warner’s cold, detached face that I see. Steenburgen nearly steals the film from the two strong male leads, playing a thoroughly modern girl who falls for the befuddled Wells as he struggles to make his way across bustling 20th century San Francisco, desperate to find his nemesis and bring him back to England, and his own time, for judgement.
If you were asked to name an early McDowell movie that includes scenes in which he is beaten, imprisoned, volunteers for an experimental medical study, and throws himself out of a window to escape people out for his blood, you’d probably think, A Clockwork Orange. But, McDowell starred in a second film where the same trials and travails, plus many others, are thrust upon his character: gay filmmaker Lindsay Anderson’s epic O Lucky Man!.
If you have never seen O Lucky Man!, let me start with sheer length: it runs just under three hours, depending on which version you find. It is picaresque, absurdist storytelling, sprawling, bawdy, angry, surreal, and challenging and beautiful. Based on Pilgrim’s Progress, a 1678 Christian allegory written by John Bunyan, O Lucky Man! is a commentary on modern capitalism that owes a lot to Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka, with a juicy soundtrack by Alan Price.
A Clockwork Orange had its ultraviolence, but it’s a straightforward story, framed by Kubrick’s crisp, futurist, eye-catching images and a synthesized soundtrack. O Lucky Man! could not be more different; a messier, more subversive film, with a look owes a lot to the great 18th-century British printmaker William Hogarth. Instead of Kubrick’s icy pessimism, Anderson reaches for the sublime. For O Lucky Man! every bit of good luck comes with a price, so you might as well enjoy it. That’s my own philosophy.
Travis (McDowell) ends up having quite the life. He’s an ambitious, eager-to-please, duplicitous coffee salesman (a job McDowell once held in real life). The company’s representative in the Northwest Britain has disappeared, and Travis is chosen to replace him. It’s a road trip film, and once he hits the road Travis is invited to a tawdry bourgeois backroom bacchanal; questioned by the military, tortured, escapes, negotiates his fine by agreeing to be the subject of a medical experiment. When he comes upon the dreadful results of an earlier experiment, he questions ”How much are they paying you?”. He escapes again, and is picked up by traveling musicians, played by Price and his band, whose songs act as a sort of Greek chorus. Travis has an affair with a groupie, played by young Helen Mirren, becomes an advisor to her industrialist father, is set up as the fall guy for international dirty dealing, goes to jail, finds religion, is released, decides to help his fellow man, and finally, ends up auditioning for a film, where he is taught a lesson in a most absurdist fashion. Then a party breaks out, with the entire cast dancing to the music of Price and his band. Make sure to pay attention, all the actors show up in multiple roles.
None of this is a spoiler because logic is not an ingredient: people disappear, fall out of windows, knock on doors with offers of jobs for no reason. Travis simply goes where the story takes him, seemingly untouched by everything going on around him. If you watch it, you have to be willing to do the same and give yourself over to it. O Lucky Man! might charm you as it did me as a teenager in 1973. McDowell gives a performance that is a wonder.
As if that’s not enough to keep track of, you could deep dive and watch McDowall’s Travis character in If…. from five years earlier, where Anderson satirizing English public school life (public school in England is the same as private school in the USA; it’s like our football and their football). Its depiction of a savage insurrection at a fictitious boys’ school, gained the film an X rating when it was released. It was made at the time of the 1968 protests in France and Anderson strongly identified with the 1960s counterculture. It’s McDowell’s first screen role. If…. is highly homoerotic and McDowell’s co-star is hot gay actor Richard Warwick, who was taken by the plague in 1997.
If…. won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Incendiary, subversive, and darkly funny, If…. is a landmark of countercultural cinema.
McDowall as Travis, plus Price and Anderson are back again in the strange, surreal Britannia Hospital (1982), a satire of Britain’s National Health Service. This time Travis is a reporter who is shooting a clandestine documentary about a hospital and its dubious practices. He manages to get inside and starts to investigate a sinister scientific experimentation, a familiar theme, including the murder of a patient played by Alan Bates. Mayhem ensues. The Travis character is murdered, and his head is used as part of a grim experiment that goes hideously wrong.
McDowall, who turns 76-years-old today, is one of the hardest working actors in showbiz with more than 250 film and television credits. He’s been in classics and duds, Hollywood films and indies and B-movies.
I always have a good experience making a movie. I always love it. But the very best… I would have to say If…. and O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital with my dear friend Lindsay Anderson.
Tiny footnote: In my friend Gavin Lambert‘s bio Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, (2000), Lambert writes that Anderson repressed his gayness and that was perceived as a betrayal by his other gay friends. In 2006, McDowell said:
I know that he was in love with Richard Harris the star of Anderson’s first feature, This Sporting Life. I am sure that it was the same with me and Albert Finney. I suppose he always fell in love with his leading men. He would always pick someone who was unattainable because they were straight.
Anderson died from a heart attack in 1994 at 71.
McDowell is one of the last living links to the great British actors who are now gone: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Finney and Bates.