A scant two years after the amazing success of Kubrick’s, A Clockwork Orange, it’s star, Malcolm McDowell, conceived of an idea around which David Sherwin wrote a script. Under the direction of Lindsay Anderson this script became O Lucky Man, and not unpredictably its star was, Malcolm McDowell. All this becomes significant to the viewer as the movie progresses and some interesting similarities with A Clockwork Orange emerge.
While A Clockwork Orange looked at the underbelly of a crumbling criminal justice system, O Lucky Man conducts a string of side views of all levels of English society in decline, from a sometimes highly realistic standpoint, sometimes a burlesque, even surreal one. The effects become exaggerated towards the end by a device of inserting more and more of the same actors into different roles. On top of that, the matter isn’t helped any when Michael Arnold Travis (McDowell) displays a curious notice in many cases regarding these familiar faces gracing new roles. Almost like a picaresque novel in reverse.
The separate misadventures of our hero are broken by studio visits with Alan Price and his band wherein we’re regaled with a song sung by Price written to reflect the story line that has just ended. Two scenes are woven with Price and his band and a rich groupie who becomes more integral to our hero’s exploits. At no time, however do other members of the cast join in any score. Calling this movie a “musical” (which many critics have done) is like calling Natural Born Killers a comedy because it has a few (very few) comic reliefs.
Another silly comparison made is that of comparing Voltaire’s, Candide with this movie. Candide retains a blissful devotion to the ideal “this is the best of all possible worlds”, while Travis, perhaps slow in coming around, begins to develop a more and more refined sense of worldliness than any blind optimism alone affords, believing far more in his own acumen than that of a society classed by estates and consumed by defining each person’s role in life by them.
The cast sports such icons of the English cinema as, Helen Mirren (Patricia, the rich groupie and daughter of Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson) who warns Travis of her father being, “the most evil man alive”. Arthur Lowes’ performance as Mr. Duff (Lowes has two other roles) begins a trend in the movie carried throughout of ominous foreboding. After giving Travis a resplendent showman’s suit (as might have been the symbolic representation of Excalibur to King Arthur or a thrown gauntlet before one’s feet) his last words to our hero, upon parting, are, “try not and die like a dog”.
Significant to this foreboding is the posture in which almost all the cast’s ladies come to find varying degrees of empathy for Travis. Sometimes as if sharing an almost last meal with the condemned…or even being sort of one. After the first grave mishap our gravely bruised and battered (and slightly tortured) hero is left wandering the countryside looking for a meal and a place to momentarily rest his head. Stumbling into a country church during service he lays down in a pew at the very back. Awakening he observes the Vicar’s wife (Mary MacLeod) and their two children preparing a setting for a Christmas pageant. Bountiful piles of food adorn the front and when the three depart, Travis goes for a loaf of bread. Discovered by the wife, she reacts, “no, that food is God’s.” That notwithstanding she cradles his head and offers her breast to indicate, one might guess, what is the food of man. The scene ends with him suckling the breast. (And this is not the best of MacLeod’s three roles.)
The height of this film’s intensity is reached in the next “episode” of these strung together misadventures as Travis is picked up by a car while trying to hitchhike to London. The driver suggests he agree to a short detour and consider a chance to earn 100 quid.. At an elaborate and Georgian manor-turned research facility, he is welcomed by staff and doctors for the important “contribution” he’s about to make to “medical science”. After an interesting bargaining session with the doctor-in-charge our hero signs on the dotted line and is ordered given a sedative. The nurse (Mona Washbourne), indicating some mothering concern, evidently doesn’t give him enough medication to knock him out and he overhears a little disconcerting overtone to what’s in store. While exploring the corridors he inadvertently stumbles into the room of a patient in agony only to find a thing with the head of a man and the body of a hog.
The entirely of the movie gradually envelops the viewer into part of it’s own framework, that of everyone outside Travis and his driven perceptions of success and an audience, half cast and half viewer, amused at what they see as self-defeat. Like those that might gather to see some preordained train wreck.
This reviewer saw the movie in 1973. Recalling A Clockwork Orange, while it was still fresh on his mind, the distinct impression (especially when viewing the attribution of O Lucky Man’s conception to McDowell in the credits,) that the young and brilliant actor might have some unfinished business with the former movie’s story line or directing.
Refinement or not, O Lucky Man does indeed take up where, A Clockwork Orange “leaves off”. Yet still, as always, its success depends on the audience, in this case, sticking their head in a noose they may not wish to oblige with the introspection required. One that really tests the “virtue” of villain (Alex in A Clockwork Orange) with the tool by which much villainy is done, our hapless, Michael Arnold Travis.