Monday, 21 January 2013
Winners & losers
Michael Winner, who has died aged 77, was one of Britain’s few commercially viable film directors; he also followed a late-flowering vocation as a belligerent restaurant critic, becoming one of the country’s most outrageous and opinionated food writers.
In the course of a film career lasting some 40 years, he made more than 30 pictures, among which were sharp social comedies such as The System (1963) and The Jokers (1966). But he derived his wealth and lasting reputation from later Hollywood hokum such as the frenzied and graphically violent Death Wish series.
Preceded by his faux film noir capers such as The Mechanic (1972) and The Stone Killer (1973), “all long on gore,” as one observer put it, “and short on sense”, Winner’s controversial blockbuster Death Wish (1974), starred Charles Bronson as a middle-class architect on a gory mission of vengeance after street muggers murder his wife and rape his daughter.
Many critics complained that Winner’s film exploited American paranoia over rising urban violence. “Michael Winner stacks the deck to make vigilante justice the only recourse against widespread crime,” declared one. The public, on the other hand, could scarcely get enough of the action; cinema audiences burst into applause each time a mugger was shot on screen, and even the celebrated American reviewer Judith Crist, admiring its theme of “Aristotelian purgation”, confessed to numbering the film among her guilty pleasures.
Most American film writers took Winner seriously as a director, admiring his swift efficiency and unerring knack of coming in on, or under, budget. But in Britain he was widely regarded as a flaky, loud-mouthed show-off. Certainly Winner was always larger-than-life. He drove a Rolls-Royce, paid no attention to his appearance (he was notorious for his jumble sale jackets and single pair of battered shoes) and was rarely seen without an enormous Monte Cristo cigar.
Portrayed as “offensive, loud and bumptious”, Winner’s egregious manner provoked comparison with Genghis Khan and even close friends found him “cherubic, cheerful and dreadful”. Flamboyant, often boorish, he was, in many ways, his own worst enemy.