Throughout film history, noteworthy actor/director collaborations have produced fascinating results. Ford and Wayne. Fellini and Mastroianni. Scorsese and De Niro. Then there are collaborations on the order of a three-film cycle that British director Lindsay Anderson made with Malcolm McDowell. In if . . . (1968), O Lucky Man!, and Brittania Hospital (1982), McDowell plays a character named Mick Travis, although the films are not linked by narrative continuity. The character is more of a concept representing something about the identity of the average UK citizen, and Anderson drops the concept into whatever scenario each movie explores. Whereas the first and last films in the cycle are relatively straightforward allegories about specific institutions (namely boarding schools and hospitals), O Lucky Man is the cinematic equivalent of a sprawling absurdist novel. By turns, the picture is a comedy, a drama, a fantasy, a musical, a satire, and an impossible-to-classify experiment.
The movie doesn’t work in any conventional sense, and it’s laughably overlong at nearly three hours. Yet O Lucky Man! is skillfully made on a scene-to-scene basis, and the gonzo extremes of the storytelling produce a few memorable moments. Trying to parse what it all means, however, seems a sure path to madness.
The movie opens with a black-and-white prologue presented like a short silent film—wearing heavy makeup and a cartoonish moustache, McDowell plays a South American laborer who gets caught stealing beans from a coffee farm and has his hands amputated. Next, Anderson cuts to a recording studio, where real-life British musician Alan Price (formerly of blues-rock band the Animals) leads his group through an on-camera performance of the film’s ironic theme song. And then the story proper begins, with Mick Travis graduating from a training program to become a coffee salesman. By this point, the basic mode of the film is set. Anderson uses vignettes of Price singing tunes in order to bridge episodes of Mick experiencing peculiar adventures, and the tone of the movie shifts, often quite shockingly, from episode to episode.
Running throughout the piece is a generalized quality of social satire, since people in the movie don’t act like normal human beings. Adding yet another layer to the overall artificiality is Anderson’s trope of cutting to black not only between scenes but also during scenes. In many ways, O Lucky Man! feels like the sort of thing a first-year student at film school might make before realizing that resonant content usually delivers stronger results than insouciant affectations. That said, there’s something admirable about the youthful zest in Anderson’s experimentation, though his camerawork and dramaturgy are conventional. At times, the movie seems at war with itself from a stylistic perspective, but it’s just as possible that Anderson envisioned chaos as his guiding aesthetic. For instance, several actors—including the great Sir Ralph Richardson—appear throughout the movie playing multiple roles, even though McDowell only interacts with them as Mick Travis.
Listing some of the random images in the picture should give a sense of its bizarre sprawl. On one of his sales stops, Mick attends a stag party where cheerful attendees demand to see the “chocolate sandwich,” an onstage sexual encounter between a black man and two white ladies. Mick volunteers for a medical experiment, only to flee when he discovers that the head of a fellow volunteer has been grafted onto the body of a sheep. Mick stumbles onto a military installation, where he’s violently interrogated while a vendor casually sells tea to his torturers. Mick romances a young woman (Helen Mirren) whose father (Richardson) is a super-wealthy businessman, and a job opening emerges at the father’s company when an executive jumps through an office window to his death dozens of stories below. Other items in O Lucky Man! include a blackface sequence, a conspiracy to obliterate African rebels with nerve gas, a judge who enjoys S&M, and a bit during which the lyrics to one of Price’s songs appear onscreen in multiple languages.
O Lucky Man! is a colossally weird film, but at the same time it’s so deliberate and formal that it lacks the abandon of, say, a proper Ken Russell phantasmagoria. It’s simultaneously insane and tame. FYI, McDowell receives onscreen credit for coming up with the idea for O Lucky Man! One can only imagine how such an idea might have been articulated.
O Lucky Man!: FREAKY