A Hard Day's Night
The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present a retrospective of the films of Richard Lester. Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast runs August 7-13 and will include a wide range of Lester's well-known work, including two films starring The Beatles (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), his Three Musketeers films, comedies, musicals, fables, and more. Immediately following our eclectic Sound + Vision series, the Film Society continues the spirit of music and energy on camera with our showcase of the work of this monumental director.
No filmmaker captured with greater gusto or more dazzling technique the spirit and energy of Britain in the Swinging Sixties than Lester. He influenced a generation of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Soderbergh. Ironically, he was an American, born in Philadelphia in 1932. A child prodigy, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania at age 15 and emerged with a degree in clinical psychology while still in his teens. He got his first break as a director after ascending the ranks of a local TV station, but sensing better opportunities abroad, he decamped to London. Soon Lester was putting his skills to use in the U.K.’s burgeoning TV industry, headlining the short-lived The Dick Lester Show, a variety program with surreal touches reminiscent of BBC radio’s The Goon Show. He so impressed Goon alum Peter Sellers that he was chosen to direct a series of reunion specials and, eventually, the 1959 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which opened the door to features.
“Growing up, I always thought of Richard Lester as one of the 1960s’ most typically English filmmakers,” remarked Film Comment Editor and Film Society Senior Programmer Gavin Smith, “not just because of his irreverent and absurd sense of humor and his feel for English life but also for the affectionate way he sent up familiar icons from The Beatles to The Three Musketeers to even Superman. Imagine my surprise when I first learned he was actually an expat Yank. Regardless, he’s still a great English filmmaker!”
Catching the zeitgeist, never more so than in his collaborations with The Beatles, he found visual and rhythmic analogues to the iconoclastic anti-establishment mood of the moment. His exuberant musical movie hits A Hard Day’s Night (which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary) and the rarely screened Help! were both clear forefathers to the music video. Film critic Andrew Sarris has called A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of Jukebox musical.” Absurdist humor, accelerated motion, application of vérité shooting methods, and rapid-fire innovative editing were among the chief characteristics of his style, but it was his mastery of craft and unfailing ingenuity that ensured he would outlast the cultural revolution.
Tickets go on sale Thursday, July 16. See more for less with a 3+ Film Package or an All Access Pass. The upcoming July/August issue of Film Comment, which hits newsstands in early July, will spotlight Richard Lester and his works. Visit their website for additional archival highlights.
Acknowledgments: Apple Corps; British Film Institute; Jason Simos; Universal Pictures.
The Bed Sitting Room
Richard Lester, UK, 1969, 35mm, 90m
Lester’s greatest professional setback, The Bed Sitting Room now stands as perhaps his most audacious experiment. Adapted from a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus imagining a dystopian England three years after nuclear war, Lester’s film situates absurd Monty Python–esque sketches amid a desolate landscape of ruins and ash. Seventeen-months-pregnant Penelope (The Knack…’s Rita Tushingham) and her family leave the subway train that has sheltered them since World War III to seek help above ground. There they find deranged survivors attempting to go on with their lives who are prone to spontaneously mutating into animals or furniture—including bed-sitting rooms. Featuring some of Britain’s top comics, including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Milligan himself, the film’s surreal humor did not connect with audiences in its day, but offers a vision of social collapse so acrid that the laughs catch in your throat.
Saturday, August 8, 7:15pm
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
Richard Lester, USA, 1979, 35mm, 115m
A decade after George Roy Hill’s classic Western comedy Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lester helmed this underrated prequel, chronicling the wild youths and historic meeting of cinema’s most genial outlaws. Tom Berenger was cast as Butch on the strength of his breakout turn in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and the resemblance William Katt (TV’s The Greatest American Hero) had to Robert Redford made him a natural choice for Sundance. Original screenwriter William Goldman contributed to Allan Burns’s script, adding scenes he intended for the first film, which Lester, shockingly, had never seen. (Claiming no affinity for Westerns, the director asserted he was making “a Victorian adventure.”) Oscar-nominated costumes and a top-notch supporting cast—including Jeff Corey, reprising his Sheriff Bledsoe role—distinguish this endearing escapade.
Tuesday, August 11, 9:15pm
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
Richard Lester, USA, 1979, 35mm, 122m
Described by Lester as “a political film in which no one speaks about politics and a love story in which no one speaks about love,” Cuba harkens back to classic Hollywood with a Casablanca-esque display of star power and restraint. In 1959, as Castro’s revolution ferments, Sean Connery is a British mercenary hired by the Batista government to suppress the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra. In Havana he encounters old flame Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven), now married to underhanded plantation owner Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon). Spain doubles for Cuba for this archetypal story, which is injected with Lester’s typically eccentric flourishes and rides on Connery’s charisma and an expert cast of character actors—including Jack Weston, star of Lester’s The Ritz, as a shady businessman named Gutman.
Wednesday, August 12, 9:15pm
The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge
Richard Lester, UK/USA/Spain/Panama, 1974, 35mm, 108m
Father-and-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind planned for the Musketeers’ saga to comprise one epic film. Realizing they had three-and-a-half hours’ worth of material, they opted to split it in two, to the ire of the cast and crew. (Today all SAG actors have a “Salkind clause” in their contracts, requiring that they know how many films are being made.) The Four Musketeers traces the second half of Alexandre Dumas’s novel, slightly lessening the slapstick and—as the title implies—accenting the villainy of the scheming Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway). Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, and Frank Finlay remain unsurpassed as Dumas’s chivalrous swordsmen—roles at one time earmarked for The Beatles!
Sunday, August 9, 4:15pm
Tuesday, August 11, 7:00pm
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Richard Lester, USA/UK, 1966, 35mm, 99m
When Broadway icon Zero Mostel was approached to re-create his Tony-winning role as conniving slave Pseudolus in the ancient Rome–set farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he tendered a short list of directors with whom he’d deign to work. The list included Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and one other name: Richard Lester. Happily, producers were able to secure Lester’s services, and Lester had the wisdom to surround Mostel with scene-stealers extraordinaire, together known on set as the Forum Quorum: Jack Gilford (Mostel’s best friend), Phil Silvers (who would clinch a Tony of his own for playing Pseudolus in 1972), and Lester’s idol, Buster Keaton. Some of Stephen Sondheim’s songs were excised due to the waning popularity of musicals, but the mirth of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s plotting remains intact, pitched at Lester’s typically frenetic pace and capped by Keaton’s farewell turn as Erronius
Sunday, August 9, 8:45pm
Wednesday, August 12, 4:30pm
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
A Hard Day’s Night
Richard Lester, UK, 1964, DCP, 87m
Called “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals” by Andrew Sarris, The Beatles’ debut feature is madcap fun incarnate. Capturing the bewildered Fab Four in the first flush of Beatlemania, Lester integrated an array of techniques, notably the vérité looseness of the French New Wave, and indulged the anarchic humor of the bandmates. Following them on their first American tour, where they’re mobbed by fans at every turn, Lester creates a proto-mockumentary, as the insouciant quartet navigate press parties and rehearsals and endeavor to carve out time for themselves. Including such Beatles standards as “If I Fell” and “She Loves You,” A Hard Day’s Night pioneered the multi-angle practice of filming live performances—decades later MTV would proclaim Lester the “Father of the Music Video.”
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film
Richard Lester & Peter Sellers, UK, 1959, 35mm, 11m
Filmed over two Sundays for a budget of £70, this short throwback to silent comedy was co-directed by Lester and Peter Sellers from an idea by the latter. Through a series of mistakes—the nature of which Lester will not reveal—this plotless slapstick exercise was nominated for an Academy Award. It was so admired by The Beatles that its maker (billed here as “Dick Lester”) was a natural choice to direct their big-screen bow, A Hard Day’s Night. Besides Lester and Sellers, the film features Sellers’s Goon Show castmate Spike Milligan as a human gramophone and character actor Leo McKern (A Man for All Seasons) providing the literal punch line.
Saturday, August 8, 1:00pm
Richard Lester, UK, 1965, DCP, 92m
When the phenomenal success of A Hard Day’s Night mandated another starring vehicle for The Beatles, Lester was the only conceivable choice to direct. This time the “plot” involves a religious order headed by Leo McKern (who pops up in The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film), seeking Ringo’s ring for a sacrificial rite. Whatever. The gags are hilarious, drawing on Lester’s background in advertising (rapid, colorful, cleverly devised), and the plot ingredients forecast his later work in their surrealism and blending of action and comedy. The incomparable soundtrack features “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket to Ride” (as the boys romp in the snow), and the title tune.
Saturday, August 8, 3:00pm
Monday, August 10, 7:00pm
How I Won the War
Richard Lester, UK, 1967, 35mm, 109m
Lester’s first foray into social satire channels his early irreverence into a pointed critique of the British military mindset and class snobbery (The Knack… meets The Bridge on the River Kwai, if you will). Set during World War II (though with pointed Vietnam parallels), How I Won the War depicts the delegation of a platoon to clear an officer’s heavily mined cricket field in North Africa—a suicide mission that exemplifies the casual disregard for human life in wartime. Michael Crawford is the unreliable narrator and beneficiary of a soldier’s lone consolation—the right to spin fanciful tales of combat heroism (“How I won the war…”). Since its release, the film has garnered a sizable cult following, due in large part to John Lennon’s turn as Cockney gunner Gripweed—a portrayal that, like his best songs, blends hilarity and cynicism.
Saturday, August 8, 5:00pm
How I Won the War
Richard Lester, UK, 1974, 35mm, 109m
A tighter and generally superior addition to the ’70s all-star disaster cycle that included Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno, Lester’s Juggernaut tracks the frantic activity aboard the luxury liner Britannic after a terrorist announces the vessel will be sunk at dawn the following day. Expertly cast in a rare action-hero role, Richard Harris is the bomb-defusing expert tasked with disarming the explosives. Meanwhile, on dry land, a Scotland Yard inspector (Anthony Hopkins), whose family is aboard the ship, races to discover the identity of the bomber known as “Juggernaut.” Inspired by a real-life bomb scare on the QE2, Juggernaut boasts a formidable star roster, including Omar Sharif as the captain and Ian Holm as the shipping line owner.
Friday, August 7, 4:15pm & 9:15pm
The Knack… and How to Get It
Richard Lester, UK, 1965, 35mm, 84m
A candidate for Lester’s defining work, The Knack… and How to Get It is a virtual panoply of his stylistic hallmarks, including witty subtitles, asides to the audience, and a Greek chorus of finger-wagging adults. This adaptation of Ann Jellicoe’s play stars Michael Crawford (20 years before becoming Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera) as a shy schoolteacher who implores his suave lodger (Ray Brooks) to teach him “the knack” of how to score with women, and Rita Tushingham as the object of both men’s desire. The Knack won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and introduced a new term to the lexicon. And that’s not all it introduced—keep your eyes peeled for Charlotte Rampling (as a water skier), Jacqueline Bisset (a girl on a motorbike), and Jane Birkin (who would marry the film’s composer, John Barry, later that year), all three making their screen debuts.
Saturday, August 8, 9:15pm
Monday, August 10, 5:00pm
The Knack… and How to Get It
Richard Lester, USA/UK, 1968, 35mm, 105m
This is, for many, Lester’s masterpiece, and certainly the work that confirmed him as a mature filmmaker. After a decade of helming mod British films, American Lester delivered a stinging portrait of his homeland in the late 1960s, where trends and mores change faster than people can adjust to them. A recently divorced, burned-out San Francisco surgeon, Archie Bollen (a magnificent George C. Scott), is captivated by the young, free-spirited Petulia (Julie Christie). Married to psychotic David (Richard Chamberlain), she’s drawn to the stable Archie and his gentle hands. Dazzlingly shot by Nicolas Roeg (who would later direct Don’t Look Now), Petulia marries Lester’s cinematic techniques with a study of discontent worthy of Antonioni.
Monday, August 10, 9:00pm
Thursday, August 13, 4:30pm
The Return of the Musketeers
Richard Lester, UK/France/Spain, 1989, DCP, 102m
Returning to the well of inspiration, Lester picks up the legend of D’Artagnan and company two decades after the events of The Four Musketeers. Now it’s the devious Cardinal Mazarin (Philippe Noiret) plotting against their beloved Queen. The retired Musketeers must reunite to save her, facing internal conflicts and trouble from Justine de Winter, daughter of their old nemesis. Christopher Lee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin return as, respectively, the Comte de Rochefort, Cyrano de Bergerac and Queen Anne of Austria, with new blood in the persons of C. Thomas Howell as Athos’s son Raoul and Kim Cattrall as Justine. Tragically, favorite Lester comic actor Roy Kinnear (who played D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet in all three films) was killed in an on-set accident, leading Lester to renounce directing features. But the resultant film (never released in the U.S. and currently unavailable on DVD), with its jocularity and swashbuckling action, provides a fitting valedictory to both men’s careers. U.S. Premiere
Sunday, August 9, 6:30pm
Robin and Marian
Richard Lester, USA, 1976, 35mm, 106m
Perhaps the richest of Lester’s revisionist fables, Robin and Marian mines the Robin Hood mythology for poignant reflections on the place of heroism in a pragmatic world. Middle-aged Robin (Sean Connery, in one of his most seasoned performances) returns from the Crusades to renew his romance with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn, in her last great role), who is now living in a convent, and settle old scores with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw). Discovering a different England than the one he left behind, one that has moved past archery contests and jousting, he realizes he’s an anachronism in his own lifetime. As elegiac as his early films were au courant, Robin and Marian presents a different side of Lester, and a melancholy subverting of the adventure yarns of yore.
Friday, August 7, 2:00pm
Wednesday, August 12, 7:00pm
Robin and Marian
Richard Lester, UK/USA, 1975, 35mm, 102m
A great fan of The Flashman Papers, a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser about the exploits of rakish 19th-century soldier Harry Flashman, Lester sought to make a film of the first book, which detailed Flashman’s misadventures in Afghanistan. The project was shuttered, but the success of Lester’s Musketeers films (scripted by Fraser) and the similarity of the second book to cinematic evergreen The Prisoner of Zenda enabled that story to reach the screen—the only Flashman tale filmed thus far. Malcolm McDowell plays the titular cad, forced by Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed) to impersonate a Danish prince and marry a German duchess (Britt Ekland). Shot partly on location in Bavaria, the film retains the irreverent tone of the books and introduced Bob Hoskins (cast as a police constable) to a global audience.
Friday, August 7, 6:45pm
The Three Musketeers
Richard Lester, UK/USA/Spain/Panama, 1973, 35mm, 105m
After a hiatus from filmmaking, Lester revived his reputation with this spirited hybrid of slapstick and satire. Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, and Frank Finlay are Alexandre Dumas’s immortal trio, with Michael York as aspiring musketeer D’Artagnan. Together they must foil a plan by Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) and the wicked Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) to convince King Louis XIII that his Queen has been unfaithful. A return to the insolent hijinks that made Lester’s name, The Three Musketeers boasts a sense of swashbuckling adventure on par with the classics of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and hearty humor—much of it supplied by Raquel Welch, in the best role of her career, who earned a Golden Globe for her antics as the Queen’s klutzy but loyal dressmaker.
Sunday, August 9, 2:00pm
Tuesday, August 11, 4:30pm