A pin-up for British anti-establishment cinema in the 1970s, Malcolm McDowell’s star was set to flourish. But despite the much-celebrated A Clockwork Orange, his career never reached lift-off…
After starting his movie acting life as one of England’s most exciting up and coming talents – and working with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson and Joseph Losey to boot – Malcolm McDowell’s star pretty much fell to the ground with a massive thud, with the actor doing nothing but predominantly forgettable roles since the mid-1980s.
Mark Fraser looks at some of the high points in a career that arguably should have reached headier heights.
10 (TIE). Caligula (Tinto Bass, 1980)
There’s an old saying that all publicity is good publicity, no matter how bad it is. While the jury may always be out on this one, it’s arguable that the ham-fisted McDowell was pretty much at the top of his game when he played the leading role in what was, at the time, one of the most notoriously controversial big budget films ever made. All up it’s not too bad a performance if one is willing to ignore some of the actor’s histrionics and the (eventual) script’s excesses – certainly it suggests he probably would have made a fine over-the-top Bond villain at some point. The trouble is these indulgences – which include massive doses of power hungry sadism and gratuitous abuses of sexual power – are difficult to ignore. And when the brief moments of hard core pornography are thrown in, the movie is unequivocally exposed for what it truly is, that being a tired, trashy, exploitative, middle-of-road period piece that has no real moral centre. As an aside, it’s interesting how society’s values have crumbled so much since 1980 that Caligula’s explicit sex scenes seem truly tame by today’s porn standards.
10 (TIE). Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
It’s interesting to note that in the book Schrader on Schrader (& Other Writings), edited by Kevin Jackson and first published by faber and faber in 1990, the director – while identifying Natassia Kinski and John Heard as playing key characters in the film – didn’t mention McDowell’s name, despite the fact he is the true evil one in what the auteur admitted was a failed attempt to make a classy and somewhat cerebral horror movie. Another ham-fisted, albeit not too disgraceful given the material, performance.
9. Aces High (Jack Gold, 1976)
A strong contribution from McDowell as the battle weary commander of a British air squadron during World War I. Very English perhaps, and maybe a bit too obvious regarding its anti-war stance, Aces High isn’t exactly classic cinema. But it does show how the actor fared better in this kind of role than in something like J Lee Thompson’s The Passage just three years later, when he played a sadistic World War II Nazi officer.
8. Star Trek Generations (David Carson, 1994)
Fans of Rob Zombie’s remake of the first two Halloween movies (where McDowell reprised the role of Dr Loomis, which was originally played by the late Donald Pleasance) may not agree with this, but this was possibly the actor’s last true noteworthy performance – another that suggests he could easily have played a Bond villain when a younger man. As the revenge-driven, Captain Kirk-obsessed Dr Tolian Soran, the actor – aged around 51 at the time – cut a dashing figure in his body length black leather overcoat and fine head of white hair.
7. Royal Flash (Richard Lester, 1975)
This may well have been the film that could have taken McDowell to the next stage of his career had it enjoyed the box office popularity of Lester’s The Three (and Four) Musketeers, which were released just a few years before. Given Royal Flash was one of a number of books about Captain Harry Flashman written by George MacDonald Fraser (no relation), a wider audience may have led to a franchise – something that would not have done the actor’s career any harm. If anything, Royal Flash showed McDowell could – when asked – deliver an entertainingly comic performance.
6. Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)
In this modest time travel sci-fi yarn, HG Wells (McDowell) chases Jack the Ripper (David Warner) to modern day San Francisco to stop the on-the-lam serial killer from carrying out further atrocities. A B-grader to be sure (it must be seen in its original screen aspect ratio to be fully enjoyed), but a film which shows McDowell’s thespian abilities are not limited to playing villains, brigands and cads.
5. Britannia Hospital (Lindsay Anderson, 1982)
The last of the Mick Travis trilogy, and one where the protagonist (McDowell) takes up secondary – although significant – screen time. By the end of the three movies (the others being if…. and O Lucky Man! – see below) Travis has grown from being a rebellious upper class English private school boy into a literal Frankenstein after falling prey to the hideously dysfunctional British public health system.
4. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)
This sequel to if…. did surprisingly well at the box office in its day, suggesting McDowell had found a substantial audience by the time he made what was just his fifth film. In this one, coffee salesman Travis is no longer a rebel wanting to shoot down the system. Rather, he has crossed over to the dark side, harnessing his rebellious streak as he claws his way to the top of corporate Britain.
3. Figures in a Landscape (Joseph Losey, 1970)
Pretty much ignored by everyone when initially released, this strange military/political allegory about the generation gap contains two solid performances (by McDowell and Robert Shaw), some incredible cinematography (by Henri Alekan, David Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky and Guy Tabary) as well as a subtle atonal 12-tone score by Richard Rodney Bennett. Arguably Losey’s most under-appreciated film (even his 1972 opus The Assassination of Trotsky got more air time), it extracts two solid performances from its leads and – with some terrific extended dolly shots – remains one of the best chase movies ever. Another one to watch in Panavision.
2. if…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
McDowell’s screen debut is a memorable one. Unable to tolerate the bully and class-driven environment of his upper class male boarding school, Travis and his classmates (Richard Warwick and David Wood) make a stand against the establishment. The question is: how much of it is in his mind? An important film with one of cinema’s most memorable climatic acts of defiance – plus it was a remarkable start to the actor’s film career. Yet again, one has to ask: WTF happened?
1. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Simply a top shelf performance in a classic movie made by one of the greatest directors of all time, in which McDowell suffers not one bad moment. At the end of the day it may be the role for which he is best remembered – fitting as it is iconic, but a pity given he has done so much other interesting stuff.