Richard Lester made the two big Beatles movies. He made the middle two original “Superman” films. He made the beloved ’70s “Three Musketeer” movies. But that list gives you no idea of all the retired filmmaker is capable of. From the ’60s to the ’80s, Lester made a string of movies as dizzying in technique as they were insightful — fast-paced, perpetual creativity machines with a bemused concern for the human race.
A couple handful of those films come to the Lester retro at Film Society of Lincoln Center from the 7th through the 13th — some of them stone-cold classics, many perpetually underrated, others outright obscure, and every one of them hard-to-find in our streaming future. Lester himself has been modest, arguably to a fault; he rarely participates in behind-the-scenes docs or in the sculpting of his legacy. So far there’s only one interview book on his career: super-fan Steven Soderbergh’s invaluable “Getting Away With It,” pus one terrific, academic study of his work, Neil Sinyard’s “The Films of Richard Lester.”
Lester has been eternally self-effacing, but he’s more complex than that. Around the same time, in the late ’60s, that he was saying things like “I work in a haphazard, sloppy fashion” or “I make the world’s most expensive home movies,” he was also referring to himself as a dictator, albeit a “non-militant dictator.” And he was stubborn about grafting his unusual, not always respected cinematic voice onto both populist fare and daring, uncommercial films, like the sometimes difficult satires “How I Won the War” and “The Bed-Sitting Room.”
We’ve picked seven films in the retro you should definitely see, but you should almost certainly see the remaining half. Each oozes with instant pleasure but also greatly rewards repeated, more focused visits. What follows is a breakdown of the films, with a look at the diversity of his methods and how he modestly, but not that modestly, changed movies:
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)/'Help!’ (1965)
Lester’s name will never be absent from any even basic film history book due to “A Hard Day’s Night” — a scrappy rush job shot and released in about a four month window, meant to capitalize on a pop group whose fame, it was assumed, was soon to wane. It didn’t, and that’s in part due to the dexterity and glee of the filmmaking. Lester cut his teeth in live television, commercials and comedy, including the famous Goons, whose ranks included Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. (Lester’s debut was their short film “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film,” shot over a weekend with scraps of celluloid, and a surprise Oscar nominee. The Beatles’ love for it was a big reason he scored the “Night” gig.) Lester learned to think fast as well as funny, and you can see both come to bear on what was a guerilla shoot that became a phenomenon.
It’s customary to write off Lester’s second Beatles film, made the following year, in color and with a supremely, visibly baked quartet, as inferior. But it’s actually more playful and even more beautiful. (Soderbergh, in his book, names it as the birth place of modern color cinematography; dig the “You’re Going to Lose that Girl” sequence, awash in experimental filters and framing.) The Four are too high to be very participatory, but Lester and writer Charles Wood take up the slack, throwing off wordplay, non-sequiturs, wild, silly absurdism and sillier Brechtian techniques, like a bizarre, abrupt intermission that surely inspired the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In fact, much of the Monty Python style of humor can be found in its infancy right here, in a globetrotting Bond send-up that features a bit where Paul McCartney spends an epic melee shrunk in size and hanging out in an ashtray clad only in an oversized gum wrapper.
‘The Knack…and How to Get It’ (1965)
In between “Night” and “Help!” Lester experimented more with some of the goofier cinematic ideas he had tossed off in the former. The result, a blow-up of a play by Ann Jellicoe about a square (here Michael Crawford, pratfalling like a god) being schooled by a fascistic ladykiller (an ice cube cold Ray Brooks), is Lester firing on all cylinders; in fact, it even won the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival. He plays with every inch of the film. There are whip-smart montages, dreamy sequences and razor sharp, sarcastic satire. The soundtrack is often filled with old people commenting from afar on our young stars — what Sinyard called “a perpetual moan.” Often lumped in with the trendy Swingin’ London cabal, it’s actually a commentary on same, though not a reactionary takedown. It’s progressive, gender equal, sex positive and also such a whirling dervish, so lousy with gags and bits, that it leaves one requiring the equivalent of an post-sex smoke.
‘How I Won the War’ (1967)
John Lennon’s face is all over the posters for his third Lester film, which is also the only film he acted in without the other Beatles. But he’s really a supporting character — just one of the doomed soldiers in a platoon run by a dangerously bumbling upper class twit (Crawford again). Here is where Lester’s angry side, till then masked by comedy and good cheer, boils over to the surface. Written again by Wood, it’s not only antiwar but anti-war movie, taking the piss out of “Bridge Over the River Kwai” and even “Paths of Glory,” the latter’s love for the “good” military brass sent up in the line, “What we need is more humane killers.” There’s a lot of jokes, and most of them draw blood; one of the best running gags has soldiers killed in battle replaced by mute ones painted single colors — a reminder that there’s always more where that came from. The lack of a strong plot — just a silly one about setting up a cricket pitch in North Africa — and the powerful bitterness doesn’t always make for an easy watch, but it’s endlessly rewarding.
The film that brings to bear all that Lester had learned, all while deepening it in ways one wouldn’t expect from him, is this savage yet humane survey of San Fran in the Summer of Love. Our two lovers aren’t hippies, though. They’re a recently divorced, depressed, middle-aged doctor (George C. Scott) and a “kook” (Julie Christie) cheating on her possibly abusive husband (an alternately sinister and moving Richard Chamberlain). Both leads give career-peak turns, but the real star is Lester, who engages in what amounts to world building. His cameras capture a legendary time as it happened — one fraught with exciting possibilities but also newfound forms of despair. As Mike Nichols said of the film, “It was about suffering at a time and place where there was no expression for it.”
What Lester was doing was not unlike what Les Blank (“Burden of Dreams,” “Always for Pleasure”) did with his documentaries: He shot what he liked, although in Lester’s case what he liked was the silliness of people, including of technology (like an automated love hotel in a parking garage) that seems exciting at the time of its introduction and absurd and dated immediately after. He even confessed to shooting Scott — “whose instincts were the most advanced of any actor I’ve ever worked with,” as he gushed to Soderbergh — in between takes or in rehearsals, just to find a kind of acting that was all the more real.
It’s a movie with a deceptively simple plot, but about everything — a very funny and sharp-eyed comedy that lampoons humanity as a species but has deep empathy for humans as individuals. The best scene he ever shot had nothing to do with his own skills as a technician; it’s the one where Scott gets an awkward visit from his ex (Shirley Knight) — a sequence that finds multitudes in body language.
Lester accepted a last-minute job to replace two fired directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Taylor, on a British thriller about a cruise ship fit with bombs by a mystery terrorist. The result was lumped in with the disaster movies of the time, in part due its English version of an all-star cast: Omar Shariff as the captain; Richard Harris and David Hemmings as the defusers; plus Anthony Hopkins, Ian Holm, Shirley Knight and a never more touchingly pathetic Roy Kinnear, as the lowly entertainment director, forced to badly enforce good cheer while everyone worries about being blown up. (He also makes a great slip of the tongue, joking on board a doomed liner that “It’s bound to be a night to remember!”)
Like “Petulia” it’s really about exploring the world, where the crew struggles with apathetic guests, where untold amounts of uneaten food gets thrown away, where the government risks the lives of thousands to avoid paying the half-a-million-pound ransom. (“He’s not even greedy!” shouts Harris.) It’s speedy and efficient, and it knows there’s nothing more tense than a patient scene of one man, a clipper and a bomb full of colored wires. It should be an anonymous thriller but it instead betrays Lester’s unique worldview.
‘Robin and Marian’ (1976)
In the early ’70s Lester enjoyed a fruitful period of keyed-up swashbucklers, like his two “Three Musketeer” films and the underrated “Royal Flash.” He segued out of the genre with a lovely autumnal romance, positing a reunion between an aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery), belatedly back from the Crusades, and Marian (Audrey Hepburn, who briefly stepped out of retirement). It’s riddled with the cockeyed comedy of his other films, quick to knock heroes off pedestals and view false attempts at heroism for what they are. But it’s also a beautiful and wrenchingly honest love story between two people, one steeped in regret; one of Hepburn’s finest moments is a low-key monologue she delivers lakeside about her suicide attempt during Robin’s absence. Only the ending of Chaplin’s “Limelight” has a more poetic final two shots.
Also almost certainly worth your time:
The makers of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” were pissed with what Lester did to his 1966 film version, which was to greatly expand it, cut it into fast-paced ribbons and add approximately 10,000 more jokes. The quick edits don’t treat star Zero Mostel so well; as Lester himself noted, movies generally turned the theater god from a graceful bound of energy on stage to a sweaty grotesque on screen. But the Lester additions tend to be great, and few looks at Ancient Rome are this spectacularly filthy. All that and Phil Silvers and Jack Gilford and Buster Keaton’s last screen performance too.
Like “How I Won the War,” “The Bed-Sitting Room” (1969) can be a dense chore, but it’s also hilarious and deadly, showing the post-apocalypse of a nuclear war that lasted 2 minutes and 28 seconds, including the signing of the Peace Treaty. Also like “How I Won the War,” there’s not much of a plot, but there are plenty of sad eccentrics (among them Ralph Richardson, Marty Feldman, Rita Tushingham, plus Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), bumbling about, trying to retain dead English traditions in a stark landscape riddled with piles of shoes and burned baby dolls, and most of the cast mutating into things like furniture and dogs. It was so weird that it killed Lester’s career for four years, but it was mostly worth it.
Made back-to-back, “The Three Muskeeters” (1973) and “The Four Musketeers” (1974) are giddy, pedastal-knocking romps that bring slapstick to swordplay. But they’re also as pessimistic as Lester’s other films, viewing its heroes as men fighting to be more than pawns in something bigger than themselves. It also, eventually, features one of Charlton Heston’s best performances — what amounts to a bit part, but boasting a cold wit he was rarely called upon to display. Lester’s last fiction film became “Return of the Musketeers,” from 1989, which is unseen by us, though it was the film on whose set Lester regular Roy Kinnear was killed after falling of a horse — a tragedy that played a key part in Lester’s retirement.
We also haven't seen "Butch and Sundance: The Early Years" (1978), with Tom Berenger and William Katt taking over for Newman and Redford, and it doesn't have a great rep. But Lester films age well, and his crossed-eyed approach to anti-heroes is even stronger than the one in the original. Take a chance!
A not exactly committed retread of “Casablanca,” “Cuba” (1979) reunites old flames Sean Connery and Brooke Adams right in time for the Cuban revolution. But though its leads are moneyed, it far from ignores the struggling working class, and Adams is a female lead with real agency. Great sensory overload of an opening too.
A brief semi-defense of “Superman III,” which is not being shown: In the late ’70s Lester found himself playing go-between the Salkinds, the family making the “Superman” movies, and Richard Donner, the director they hired. Neither side liked the other. Lester took over for the second film, released in 1980, and even had to re-shoot footage Donner had already shot so he could score a director’s credit. (Donner appears to have never forgiven him.) “Superman III” is all Lester, albeit a severely compromised version of him, and it’s pretty awful — bloated, often misjudged. But it has three sequences that are pantheon Lester: a slapstick opening credits sequence; an intense fight between Evil Superman and Strong Clark Kent; and a part where jazz singer Annie Ross is turned into a laser-shooting robot, which is far cooler than it sounds.
"Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Iconoclast" runs from Aug. 7 through Aug. 13 at the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. For showtimes and tickets visit their site.