When Michael Winner passed away on January 17th, pop­u­lar cin­e­ma lost one of its most mem­o­rable provo­ca­teurs.  This British-born direc­tor had a fas­ci­nat­ing career: he start­ed off as one British cinema’s mod-era upstarts in the mid-1960’s before tran­si­tion­ing into a career pri­mar­i­ly doing slick, action-dri­ven com­mer­cial fare.

This Winner to direct­ing Death Wish, kick­ing off a third phase of his career where he trans­formed into an enfant ter­ri­ble.  He did occa­sion­al “respectable” films dur­ing this time but oth­er­wise delight­ed in taunt­ing crit­ics and oth­er bluenoses with films that rev­eled in dis­plays of vio­lence, sex and oth­er seedy-cin­e­mat­ic plea­sures.  His crit­i­cal stock declined but he earned a new fol­low­ing amongst exploita­tion film fanat­ics.  He stopped mak­ing films in the 1990’s but lived well to his dying day, even­tu­al­ly find­ing anoth­er career as a restau­rant crit­ic.

The fol­low­ing is a high­ly sub­jec­tive “top five” list, as Schlockmania tends to favor Winner’s ear­ly ‘70s work over the ‘80s mate­ri­al that has become a fetish for trash-cin­e­ma fiends.  That said, this list cov­ers clas­sics, trash and those films that exist some­where between those two poles.  You prob­a­bly won’t impress your cinephile friends by sit­ting down with any of the­se films but you won’t be bored, either.

I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname: as Winner’s “swing­ing six­ties” era wound to a close, he made this mem­o­rable pop-art blend of com­e­dy and dra­ma that pro­vides an inter­est­ing upper-class flip­side to the coun­ter­cul­ture “awak­en­ing” films of the era. Oliver Reed toplines as an adver­tis­ing man who feels the bars cre­at­ed by the gild­ed cage of his suc­cess clos­ing in.  He rebels via par­ty­ing and wom­an­iz­ing but dis­cov­ers rebel­lion can be as lim­it­ing as sell­ing out.  Winner directs with a killer sense of style, includ­ing an amaz­ing anti-“ad” at the finale, and Reed gives one his best per­for­mances as the self-ques­tion­ing hero.

The Mechanic: Winner was in the mid­st of a string of films with Charles Bronson when he made this excel­lent, bleak thriller that blends hard-hit­ting action with a twisty, turny thriller plot.  Bronson plays an aging pro­fes­sion­al assas­s­in who is feel­ing his age.  He assuages the guilt he feels over killing an old com­pa­tri­ot by teach­ing the friend’s son (Jan Michael Vincent) the assas­si­na­tion trade — but this starts a series of events that could be fatal for both.  Lewis John Carlino’s script keeps the view­er off-guard until it reach­es one of the great twist end­ings and Bronson and the under­rat­ed Vincent do strong work.  Winner’s styl­ish but spare approach fits the mate­ri­al like a glove.

The Stone Killer: this blend of police pro­ce­du­ral and sin­is­ter thriller plays like The Manchurian Candidate reworked for the grind­house. It has the vibe of a men’s adven­ture paper­back from the era, with Charles Bronson play­ing a cop who is on the trail of con­spir­a­cy involv­ing the Mafia, dis­en­fran­chised Vietnam War vets and a tru­ly ambi­tious mass-assas­si­na­tion plot.  Winner’s snap­py pac­ing and knack for action sequences keep the pulpy plot on its feet and the excel­lent sup­port­ing cast fea­tures Martin Balsam, Stuart Margolin, Ralph Waite, John Ritter, Paul Koslo and Jack Colvin.  The fun is com­plet­ed by a swell cop-jazz musi­cal score from Roy Budd and one of the best dum­my deaths in film his­to­ry.

Death Wish: This pick is inevitable — not only is it Winner’s best known film, it pret­ty much set the tem­plate for the mod­ern vig­i­lante film and final­ly made Bronson a lead­ing man in the United States.  Often when a film is this influ­en­tial and uni­ver­sal­ly known, its impact becomes dulled but that is not the case with Death Wish.  This tale of a fam­i­ly man turn­ing vig­i­lante after his fam­i­ly is destroyed by ran­dom crime is per­fect­ly suit­ed to Winner’s cin­e­mat­ic modus operandi: he manip­u­lates the viewer’s feel­ings about jus­tice and revenge with ruth­less effec­tive­ness while deliv­er­ing a num­ber of thrilling action sce­nes in an effi­cient, cold­ly styl­ish man­ner.  Whether or not you view it as exploita­tion, it will get you talk­ing after­wards — and for a film that is almost 40 years old, that is pret­ty impres­sive.

The Sentinel: this all-star adap­ta­tion of Jeffrey Konvitz’s hor­ror nov­el shows Winner’s trashiest ten­den­cies in full flight.  The plot­line is a sim­ple knock­off of tra­di­tion­al hor­ror tropes tai­lored to a post–Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist/Omen mar­ket­place, in which a mod­el moves into an apart­ment build­ing with a past that has sin­is­ter super­nat­u­ral pur­pos­es for her.  Lead actress Cristina Raines is frankly awful in the lead but trash­fiends won’t care: it applies Hollywood resources and cast­ing to a sto­ry that includes such high­lights as a knife attack that hacks off a nose, can­ni­bal­is­tic les­bians and the denizens of hell por­trayed by real phys­i­cal­ly-deformed humans.  No “pres­tige” hor­ror film has ever had such out­ra­geous bad taste before or since — and Winner has a ball chore­o­graph­ing all its kinky shocks.

Honorable Mentions: if you want a taste of Winner’s 1980’s-era tac­tics, Death Wish II is amongst the scuzzi­est grind­house films released by a major stu­dio, Scream For Help is an amaz­ing­ly sleazy and daft thriller and Death Wish III is amongst the cra­zi­est sequels ever made.