Did you enjoy a cup of coffee on your way into the screen today? This film’s opening sequence will remind you to count yourself lucky you didn’t have to pick the beans yourself. The rest of the film will remind you that ‘lucky’ is a euphemism for something else.
Lindsay Anderson’s O LUCKY MAN! is the tale of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), travelling salesman and innocent abroad. If you’ve seen the director’s dreamlike 1968 film IF…., then you already know and love Travis as its machine gun-wielding anarchist good guy, and you’ll have a lot of fun spotting actors, characters, images and echoes from that film in O LUCKY MAN! But this is not a sequel. The Travis we follow here has become a very different young man: eager to succeed, eager to please. The moral universe, too, is different: this time there are no heartfelt friendships or romantic revolutionary heroes, just a fearless lucidity about capitalism and ideology, presented with directness, fury, lyrical beauty, and humour of the very darkest roast.
The cast is a Who’s Who of 1970s British actors, including Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, James Bolam, Dandy Nichols, Helen Mirren, Warren Clarke, Geoffrey Palmer, Bill Owen and many more. Such a line-up of well-loved faces might have felt familiar or even cosy if they had been working with a less fiercely intelligent director. But Anderson has many of them play multiple roles, and in doing so he creates a distancing effect that prevents the audience from getting too comfy. This distancing effect emphasises at every turn that what we are watching is not a drama, but a fable. Paradoxically, it also heightens our emotions, making the comedy even funnier – I defy you to get through Graham Crowden’s suicide scene without hooting with laughter – and the horror even more horrific.
In other words, the film does not stop you from feeling, but it does also force you to think. This is an intellectual film in the best sense: serious, provocative, challenging, exhilarating. From Voltaire to Brecht, it wears its influences on its sleeve, not as smarty-pants cinephile references, but as political and artistic forebears. Above all, it is utterly sincere – satire, not irony.
In contrast to the Cannes-winning and perennially popular IF…., O LUCKY MAN! has been woefully underrated – critically pooh-poohed and rarely screened. For my money, it’s actually the better film, both more demanding and more truthful, and its neglect over the decades has been unjust. But then again, its brilliant courtroom scene will show you what justice means. You’ll laugh so hard you might spill your coffee.