How do you solve a problem like Richard Lester? Typically, analysts have taken one or another extreme position: either to extol the American-born, long-term English resident as an overlooked, underestimated purveyor of elegantly articulated, visually dense narratives, or to excoriate him as an oxymoronically sophisticated yet superficial addict of sensory overkill, all flash and no follow-up. Lester has been professionally out of commission since 1991, his last release being a conventional concert film, Get Back, of an appearance by Paul McCartney and his band in Rio de Janeiro. Minor as the documentary might be in his filmography, it nonetheless confirms most people’s identification of the director not only with the Beatles but also the decade of the 1960s. Lester has more than once ruefully affirmed that his obituary will indelibly associate him with the Fab Four, yet few, including him, would disagree that his work with the group (A Hard Day’s Night  and Help! ) constitutes some of his most distinguished and certainly most influential material. He captured both visually and rhythmically the ebullience and effervescence of portions of the decade and the inception of the Beatles’ ascendance to cultural icons.
The persistence of his association with the kind of colourful, rapidly cut, culturally sensitive and continuously comic atmosphere that dominates these two films has provided ammunition for those who imagine Lester as little more than a purveyor of pop-inflected pap, yet it simultaneously allows one to overlook the recurrent and assiduous critical consciousness at work in his persistently comic cinema. The problem with Lester is that the critical and commercial success of certain of his films overshadows if not obliterates the darker, intellectually demanding and sometimes outright daunting dimensions of some of his work. It remains a critical conundrum to make sense of someone who would be able to convey the cheekiness of the Beatles’ sniping against the class system and then choose to make a buffoonish and audience-baiting comedy about the end of the world (The Bed Sitting Room ) or cast Sean Connery as a classic cinematic leading man (Cuba ) only to engage in a concerted piss-take of the whole phenomenon of heroism. Somehow you might think that the oft-quoted line of dialogue issued by Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night as to whether he was a mod or a rocker – “I’m a mocker,” he replies – amounts to an implied self-portrait of the director. He has been less often a madcap crazy than a concerted anti-sentimentalist and deconstructor of cinematic conventions.
Neil Sinyard’s revision and republication of his 1985 study of Lester updates his earlier efforts to “revive an appreciation of a director who seems to have fallen off the critical map”( p. 1). Its principal predecessor at reappraisal and revivification was the director Steven Soderbergh’s extended interview with Lester, Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of The Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, published in 1999 (1). Soderbergh apprises Lester as one of his principal influences and cites three of his films as masterpieces: A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack (1965) and Petulia (1968). Sinyard does not disagree with that selection, but adds Juggernaut (1974) and Robin and Marian (1976) to the category of masterworks. He also asserts at the start that four characteristics dominate Lester’s output and will generate his analysis: “the bounce of his style, the bracing scepticism about heroes and society, the richness of the visual surfaces and the wit of the character observation” (p. 13). Rather than finding his work off-putting and unrelenting, as do his detractors, Sinyard agrees with the observations on the director by Jules Feiffer and Penelope Gilliat: the former drawing attention to Lester’s capacity for “making a film your friend” and the latter remarking on the “strangely companionable” dimension of his work (p. 7). That does not, at the same time, mean that Sinyard shuts his eyes to the manner with which Lester allows his narratives to disturb and discombobulate audiences; he recognises that “they eschew convention and avoid the obvious, which, of course, can mean that they elude the audience as well” (p. 9). His iconoclastic proclivities remain elemental to his nature, and the impulse to pursue subject matter from a fresh and unfamiliar angle generates Lester’s strengths as much as it instigates his seeming inconsistencies.
Sinyard comes as across as a clear, lucid and occasionally vivid writer; a scholar prone to an auteurist perspective, but not one so iron-clad that he overlooks the importance of collaboration. Lester himself (who collaborated through interviews with Sinyard on each edition of the study) eschews both the theory and the title. Clearly, he values – and Sinyard draws attention to – such consequential individuals as screenwriters Charles Wood (The Knack, Help!, How I Won The War , The Bed Sitting Room and Cuba) and George MacDonald Fraser (The Three Musketeers , The Four Musketeers  and The Return of the Musketeers ) as well as cinematographers David Watkin (The Knack, Help!, How I Won the War, The Bed Sitting Room, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Robin and Marian and Cuba) and Nicolas Roeg (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum  and Petulia). Nonetheless, Sinyard attributes the successful achievement of form throughout his films to Lester himself. Cumulatively, he draws forth a portrait of an anti-sentimental individual; one prone to concentration on the solution of technical challenges rather than the complexities of performance; an individual fascinated with and eager to dismantle the conventions of genre; a man convinced that storytelling must remain a visual phenomenon and that all else in a film ought to be subordinate to the succession of the appropriate sequence of images. The noun “vision” often gets haphazardly tossed into discussion as a shorthand format for what Sinyard admires in Lester’s output: a personal signature that stands out as unique, undeniable and uniformally challenging.
The manner with which Lester challenges his audiences does not elude Sinyard, but one has to admit that there does seem to be an elusive dynamic to the director’s personality that led him to make certain choices of material that not only defied commercial prospects but also seemed outright to solicit dismissal at least and damnation at worst. To state that the trilogy of films with which he concluded the 1960s – How I Won The War, Petulia and The Bed Sitting Room – stake out a defiant position on any number of issues – war, marriage, the conflict between the generations and international diplomacy – is to minimise how savage and taboo-breaking these films were and remain. While one may not agree with certain critics of the time who chastised Lester for what they regarded as outright hostility toward his audience, it remains far from difficult to understand why such opinions were held. Few directors, then or now, who achieve the kind of critical and commercial success as did Lester or, more to the point, who are associated with such bubbly, ostensibly consumer-friendly sort of material as was Lester, have taken such a deliberate, and eventually self-destructive, left turn. I mean that last designation both in its polemical meaning as well as its commercial application. In interviews, Lester comes across as simultaneously forthcoming and elusive, up front and opaque. His rationale for his choice of material remains both fascinating and frustrating; how did he manage to convince investors to support his choices and why did he stake his reputation upon such ostensibly dubious prospects? The bravery as well as the bravado with which he conducted his career remains a subject for study and speculation.
Sinyard’s analyses do not, typically, range far afield in that manner but, instead, remain focused upon the films themselves: their visual dynamics, thematic confluences and intellectual as well as ideological aspirations. His examination of Juggernaut, for example, synthesises his perspective and offers one of the best and most revelatory chapters in the study. Juggernaut can be seen as Lester’s gamble upon re-entry into the commercial arena; an effort at a seemingly unproblematic thriller that would dissuade those who would identify himself still with what they felt to be the loopy atmosphere and dubious intentions of The Bed Sitting Room. Without a film released for five years, he was hired on short notice; had only two and a half weeks to prepare the production and re-write the script; and could ostensibly do little to deter it from the obligations of the scenario: the effort by a set of demolition experts, led by Richard Harris, to dismantle a bomb upon an ocean liner while the police, led by Anthony Hopkins, struggle to apprehend the mastermind behind the plot. Sinyard illustrates with precision and care how Lester infuses the narrative with his characteristic critical consciousness as well as applying his own technical expertise to the material at hand. Juggernaut comes across consequently as a masterful return to form, for Lester conveys complete command of mood, tempo and sustained suspense seemingly without obvious effort. Moreover, as Sinyard argues, he recognises how a larger metaphor is at operation in the rudiments of the plot; how the ship acts as an analogy for the state: “It is not a disaster movie as such: more a film about a society heading for disaster” (p. 98). Intertwined with the Howard Hawks-like focus upon the complexities of male professionalism that drive the men both on board and on shore, Lester integrates the manner with which the time of the film’s setting, 1973-4, amounted to one in which England was only partially operational; a vessel itself teetering upon sinking. The way in which the titular character holds the ship at ransom parallels the manner with which a desiccated and outmoded system struggles to maintain order. In the end, Sinyard convinces the reader, Juggernaut succeeds as a masterful genre exercise; a critical dissection of public life and policy; and a technical tour de force for the director. Not bad for a picture whose overriding aim, in Lester’s mind (one imagines), must have been to salvage his reputation and secure him support for subsequent material.
Engaging and informative as Sinyard’s study is, there is a dimension to his writing which suggests he could have tackled Lester’s career in another manner. He occasionally interjects single statements about Lester that suggest, to this reader at least, not only intriguing and thought-provoking observations but also points of entry for wide-ranging speculation. For example,
He is much more concerned that an audience steps out of an event than steps into it and enjoys a game with cinematic conventions (p.22);
Richard Lester’s films have a peculiar relationship with time. […] they can seem very much tied to the period in which they were made […] the films catch that moment in time with such intensity that they become a lasting document of the era (p. 31);
The message is in the montage (p. 41);
Lester has made all kinds of movies – musicals, comedies, thrillers, historical romances, a western – but the imagery he draws on most often is that of war (p. 58);
Games in Lester’s films have often been lethal analogies to important themes (p. 61).
One can imagine Sinyard having written this volume in a different manner, not one driven by chronological readings of Lester’s career but, instead, a thematic speculation on the dynamics that recur from work to work. This is not to denigrate what Sinyard has achieved, but, rather, to assert that the ingredients of an alternate approach lie embedded in the results. What Sinyard has offered us is a wise and informative reading that provides ammunition to debate Lester’s detractors as well as insights that render his work all the more commanding and conducive to re-viewing.
Richard Lester, by Neil Sinyard, University of Manchester Press, Manchester, 2010.