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July 21, 2020

Michael Winner and Oliver Reed: Two Films

the system.jpg

The System/The Girl-Getters
Michael Winner - 1964


Hannibal Brooks
Michael Winner - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Michael Winner directed six films with Oliver Reed. Of those six, the four released between 1964 and 1969 are the ones of most interest. The last two films have Reed reduced to supporting roles. Both the director and the actor benefited from this collaboration as it brought greater critical and commercial attention to each.

For Reed, The System is a transitional film with a role that has echoes of previous work. He appears here as Tinker, a photographer at a British beach resort town, who uses his photography to meet young women on holiday and arrange for some of them to hook up with his friends who also have summer jobs. As his nickname suggests, Tinker has created the mechanics for a system for he and his pals to have summertime romances. As in Beat Girl and The Party's Over, Reed plays the rebel leader, either by design or default, yet simultaneously seems removed from the group, carrying with him a sense of emotional distance. In her interview on the blu-ray, actress Jane Merrow discusses this sense of reserve of Reed suggesting that in this film there were similarities between the actor and his role.

The System did well enough for Winner to make two more even more commercially successful films with Reed, The Jokers, co-starring Michael Crawford, and I'll Never Forget What'sisname with Orson Welles, also reputed to be the first mainstream English language film to drop the F-bomb. The fourth film, Hannibal Brooks was less successful commercially and critically. Both Winner and Reed bounced back, Reed first with Ken Russell's Women in Love, and Winner remaking himself as primarily an action director who in a couple years would have a lucrative, and sometimes ludicrous, collaboration with Charles Bronson.

I had seen The System under its US release title, The Girl-Getters, in 1966. While the film did get rave reviews, the initial first run release was limited. It was not unusual for art and independent films at that time to skip Denver at that time. I saw The Girl-Getters as a supporting feature for Roger Corman's The Wild Angels. At that time, it was not unusual for some first run films to play as part of double features in Denver's downtown theaters. I was fourteen that summer, and unaware that Winner's film was already two years old, but I liked what I saw.

As a teenager, I was so caught up with the bad boy behavior of Tinker and his posse that I missed the point of story. While the lads are calming to be rebelling against conformity and middle class values, it's essentially summertime fun before returning to their families or school for the rest of the year. Tinker pursues a model, Nicola, and finds himself thinking of a more domestic life only to discover that Nicola has chosen a life more itinerant than his own.

Winner smartly cast the film with relatively unknown actors who were age appropriate, notably including David Hemmings. Reed was twenty-five when the film was made, but his stocky build, plus his already prodigious drinking, made him look a bit older. The film was shot during the summer of 1963, with The Beatles topping the charts in England. Too late to hire them as the rock band that briefly appears in the film, Winner did get the second most popular Liverpool band, The Searchers, to record the title song. Much of the credit for the look of the film goes to cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, just a couple films away from working with Richard Lester and John Schlesinger. Australian film historian Stephen Vagg provided the commentary track which quotes from Michael Winner and Oliver Reed's respective autobiographies, as well as anecdotes from surviving cast members.

In discussing the casting of The System, Stephen Vagg reviews Michael Winner's ability to spot future talent. As it turned out, Winner, like several other people, was overly optimistic about stardom for Michael J. Pollard. This is a World War II film, still a viable commercial genre at the time of production. Second billed, after Oliver Reed, in Hannibal Brooks, Pollard basically has a glorified supporting role as an American P.O.W. captured by the Germans, always on the lookout for a way to escape. Reed plays Lance Corporal Brooks, who is given the job of looking after an elephant, Lucy, at the Munich zoo. After a bombing in Munich substantially destroys the zoo, Brooks is assigned, along with two German soldiers, to escort Lucy to a zoo in Innsbruck, Austria, by train. Denied use of the train by a top office, Brooks is forced to walk Lucy to Innsbruck. Plans change, with Brooks attempting to get himself and Lucy over the Alps and into neutral Switzerland.

The story, created with Winner, was inspired by Tom Wright's own wartime experience caring for elephants as a P.O.W. What gets in the way is that the concept is too whimsical for a serious film that takes time for Brooks to lament about the loss of life that takes place in wartime. Reed and the elephant, Aida, do most of the literal and emotional heavy lifting here. Pollard's casting seems more of a distraction, neither sufficiently comic nor convincingly serious as needed. Based on the reviews at the time of release, there was consensus that in spite of the weaknesses, there was just enough in Hannibal Brooks to make consider it likable. Minus the elephant, Hannibal Brooks has most of the expected cliches to be found in a film about an Allied soldier escaping from Nazis. I did like the dreamy score by Francis Lai. The film is also notable as the first of Michael Winner's collaborations with cinematographer Robert Paynter, who had previously worked exclusively with documentaries.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 21, 2020 07:10 AM