Although Michael Winner became better known in recent years as a cigar-wielding gourmand, an outspoken television guest and the voice of the Esure car advertisements advising women to “calm down dear”, his main career from the 1960s to the 1980s, was as a prolific director, mostly of action films. His route into show business came initially through journalism – he edited Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, and wrote a celebrity gossip column for the Kensington Post – and then the BBC, where he cut his teeth as an Assistant Director on a wide variety of programmes.
Winner’s break into feature films came as the screenwriter of Montgomery Tully’s Man with a Gun (1958), about a nightclub fire insurance claim scam, and he was soon directing his own energised films beginning with Shoot to Kill (1960), in which a showbiz reporter gets entangled in political shenanigans, and then Some Like It Cool (1961), which extols the virtues of nudism to a family of prudes. In no time Winner had become the ‘swinging 60s’ director-for-hire, his range including Gilbert & Sullivan (The Cool Mikado, 1962), a Billy Fury musical (Play It Cool, 1962), and a slice of social realism (West 11, 1963).
His occasional but long-term partnership with notorious actor Oliver Reed began with the ‘seaside teen sex shocker’ The System (1964) – which features Reed doing the twist with alarming alacrity – and continued with the Clement and La Frenais comedy The Jokers (1967), which has Reed and Michael Crawford play brothers planning to steal the crown jewels, and I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name (1967), in which Reed is an advertising go-getter who tries to turn his back on it all to pursue serious literature.
Combining Reed with Bonnie & Clyde character actor Michael J. Pollard for Hannibal Brooks (1969), a successful POW breakout movie, proved to be the bridge for Winner to work in America and the pact was sealed by the Marlon Brando vehicle The Nightcomers (1971), a peculiar but effective prequel to Henry James’s chilling novella The Turn of the Screw.
Winner’s series of ultra-efficient Hollywood action films included Lawman (1971), a Burt Lancaster western, three Charles Bronson vehicles in Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), and The Stone Killer (1973), and another film with Lancaster, the spy thriller Scorpio (1973). Winner always prided himself on being able to do the maximum number of setups per day – hence the studios were always keen to use him because he could bring in effective star vehicles at a reasonably low cost.
Arguably the peak of his movie career came with the controversial success of Death Wish (1974). Here Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered New York architect whose wife and daughter are attacked when thieves break into their apartment; the wife beaten to death and the daughter raped. Police inaction leads Kersey to wreak vengeance on the criminal ‘lowlife’ of the city. Some viewed the film as too violent and simplistic in its attitudes to street crime but it was a huge success.
Thereafter Winner’s career took in a remake of The Big Sleep (1978) starring Robert Mitchum among various offerings, but by 1982 he needed a hit badly enough to give in to Bronson’s desire to make Death Wish II (1982). Death Wish 3 (1985) followed not long after and the final flourish of Winner’s film career saw him making big screen fillers for Cannon films. But by then he had become a larger-than-life British media celebrity, always available for comment, and his love of the good life displayed in his Sunday Times column ‘Winner’s Dinners’ won him a keen following until the end.