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If you were asked to name the early-’70s Malcolm McDowell movie that includes scenes in which he is beaten, imprisoned, volunteers for an experimental medical study, and throws himself out of a window to escape people out for his blood, you’d probably say, “Well, that’s easy: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And you’d be right. But McDowell starred in a second movie where those travails—and many others—are visited upon him: Lindsay Anderson’s Trunkworthy epic O Lucky Man!
It’s not hard to see how O Lucky Man! slipped through the cracks; it sets a pretty high barrier for entry. To start with, there’s sheer length: anywhere from two-and-a-half to three hours depending on the source (the “Special Edition” DVD runs just under three hours). Then there’s the picaresque, absurdist storytelling. It’s sprawling, bawdy, angry, surreal, and, by turns, challenging and beautiful. Based broadly on Pilgrim’s Progress, the movie is a commentary on modern capitalism that takes its cues from Brecht, Beckett, Fielding, and Kafka, with a soundtrack (a Trunkworthy find on its own) by Alan Price.
Where Clockwork had its ultraviolence and Nadsat patois, it’s a straightforward story, framed by Kubrick’s crisp, futurist, eye-catching images and a synthesized soundtrack. O Lucky Man! is another animal entirely; a messier, more subversive movie, with a look that recalls the great 18th-century British printmaker and satirist William Hogarth. In place of Kubrick’s chilly pessimism, Anderson reaches for the sublime. For O Lucky Man! there’s no cure for life; every bit of good luck comes with a price, so you might as well enjoy it.
And Mick Travis (McDowell) ends up having quite the life. He’s an ambitious, eager-to-please, duplicitous trainee coffee salesman (a job McDowell actually held) whose life is ruled by happenstance. The company’s rep in the Northwest has disappeared, and Travis is chosen to replace him. Once on the road, he is invited to a tawdry, petit bourgeois backroom bacchanal, questioned by the military, tortured, escapes, negotiates his fee to be the subject of a medical experiment (when he comes upon the awful results of an earlier experiment, his first question is “How much they paying you?”), escapes, is picked up by musicians returning to London—Price and his band, whose songs act as a Greek chorus—starts an affair with their traveling companion (a young Helen Mirren), becomes an aide to her industrialist father, is set up as the fall guy for international dirty dealing, goes to jail, finds religion, is released, decides to help his fellow man, and finally, ends up auditioning for a movie, where he is taught a lesson in a most slap-dash fashion. Then a party breaks out, with the entire cast dancing to Price and his band. And just to make sure you’re paying attention, all the actors show up in multiple roles. None of these can be categorized as “spoilers” because logic is not a consideration: people disappear, fall out of windows, knock on doors proffering gold suits, offer Travis jobs for no reason other than he’s there. He simply goes where the story takes him, seemingly untouched by everything going on around him.
To put it another way, O Lucky Man! is not for everybody. (I know this from personal experience: I took a woman to see it at the Carnegie Hall Cinema on a first date; not only did she leave halfway through the movie, but in her telling of the story, the date was comparable to the one Robert De Niro took Cybil Shepherd to in Taxi Driver. This only made me love the movie more.) But if you’re willing to give yourself over to it, O Lucky Man! works its charm on you, a spell that holds over multiple viewings. McDowell’s performance is a wonder as his blue eyes taking it all in, an innocent looking for an angle.
Today, 40 years and many screenings later (although I never took another date . . . I learned my lesson) O Lucky Man! still holds surprises and mysteries: what, exactly, is going on in that military instillation? Is the Oswald in the meeting with Sir James the same Oswald who disappeared at the start of the movie? And what’s the deal with the green apples? So dive into it with no expectations other than to be enthralled.