Beginning an ongoing series, Lumière asks a diverse range of film critics about the movie(s) that got them into movies.

ROBERT SMITH: I considered the movies that had really got to me in some way, from Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead to 2001 and Withnail and I. I realised there was only one movie that really, really got me into movies. I had just joined the Dunedin Film Society back in 1996 when they did a Lindsay Anderson retrospective. I loved This Sporting Life and If..., but when I saw O Lucky Man!, it really just blew me away.

Although Lindsay Anderson first became known as one of the angry young men of British theatre and cinema in the 1950s identified for their dirty realism, the director spent most of his later career in a completely different world.

Only four years after he had Richard Harris pounded into the mud of a rugby league field and arguing in cramped kitchens, Anderson released The White Bus. Although the short film had a simple enough plot, featuring a girl bored with working life in London and going back to her comfortable home town, it was also a nakedly surreal experience, with pure logic and linear storytelling going right out the window.

Anderson built on The White Bus and the world ended up with If... (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), a trilogy of movies all starring Malcolm McDowell as a character named Mick Travis, although it is never felt necessary to make clear if it is actually the same Travis in each of them.

If... has rightly been championed as Anderson’s finest film, with the stark life of young dreamers in the stiffest of boarding schools exploding into violence in an unforgettable climax. Britannia Hospital, using a single hospital as a great, big metaphor for the British class system, also managed to take Anderson’s ideas on evolution to the ultimate end, which in this case turned out to be a disembodied brain quoting Shakespeare to everybody.

Sadly, the middle movie is often overlooked in comparison. But while the clothes and music have dated, it is also the purest Anderson vision of the world, one where authority is unworthy of trust, but where the creative community will always provide a little shelter from the storm, if only for a little while.

On first reflection, O Lucky Man! can appear a plotless, aimless mess, with McDowell’s Travis going from coffee salesman to suspected spy to biological test experiment to the personal assistant of the most powerful man in Britain to prisoner to film star with little reflection or introspection.

But the plot is a good frame for Anderson’s ideas. Near the beginning of the film, after Travis’ dubious charms have been shown off, the movie moves from the whimsy of a drive in the country to the horror of a car crash with a deft touch, and the situation becomes even more bizarre and upsetting with the local police officers’ reaction to the scene.

Later in the film, an intense torture scene in interrupted by a tea lady, easy money in medical experimentation sees the head of a man horribly grafted onto an animal’s body and a demonstration of a terrible chemical weapon is all business and dry numbers.

Through it all, Travis shows little fear and this is the key to the heart of the film. He deals with the situation and moves on to the next stage of his life without dwelling on it. The character’s actions are reflected in the film itself. The style, tone and mood of the film shift as rapidly as the script and while there are occasional mis-steps and lapses in judgement on Anderson’s part, he is not afraid to try new things. Alan Price’s musical interludes still have charm 33 years on, but are still a little redundant and distract from the ongoing story. But there is no fear in giving it a go and moving quickly on.

At the end of the film, Travis wanders the street alone and lost. He answers an open casting call and after ditching his self-pity and confusion to really, truly smile, becomes a star, appearing the film we have just watched. Far from being plotless, this meta-textual end shows it was actually a tight spiral pulling us all along, until we reach the very heart of Anderson’s world.

Robert Smith is The Marlborough Express film critic.