Michael Winner is best remembered stateside (as much as he’s remembered at all) for directing Charles Bronson to vigilante stardom in “The Mechanic” and “Death Wish” (to name just two of their many collaborations). But before he crossed to pond for Hollywood, Winner was a British director whose stock in trade was comedy and satire, sixties style. He was pretty good, too, if inconsistent, as films such as “The Girl Getters” (available from VCI) and “I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname” (Anchor Bay, currently on moratorium) attest. More evidence arrives in two recent MOD releases.
The 1965 “You Must Be Joking” (Columbia Pictures Classics) is a scavenger hunt comedy by way of a military farce made by a director under the influence of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The script suggests “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” redesigned for a youth audience, with a small company of authority figures stripped of their authority and pit against each other in a race through London to collect five random object by hook or by crook. It’s a test designed by an off-kilter army psychiatrist (Terry Thomas, of course) to test the ingenuity and creativity of aspiring leaders for the new modern army. Along with all the British caricatures (Denholm Elliot as a cool aristocrat who swills cocktails while his servants chase down the objects, Lionel Jeffries as the drill sergeant of a career soldier, Lee Montague as the apoplectic army engineer) is Michael Callan as the American army’s contribution to the contest, who gets help from his swinging British girlfriend and a sexy French pop star. Old school British humor and contemporary cultural satire rub shoulders throughout and Winner never seems to know which audience to favor. A dryly witty scene set in a record company autograph mill where a staff of little old ladies sign fan pics of teen idols is followed by a tone-deaf parody of the Beatles movies featuring a phony band chasing our American con man across London in a bit closer to “Carry On” than Richard Lester, even with his freeze frames and snappy transitions. Mostly it works, a mix of mod culture in respectable society with a stiff upper lip deadpan to the slapstick.