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.