Weekend Watch: West 11

James Oliver

James Oliver says that Michael Winner's 1963 film is a masterpiece amongst the rest of his work

19 October 2018 15:44

Before he retired to enjoy life as the UK’s most visible bon vivant and sometime insurance salesman (‘Calm down, dear!’), Michael Winner was a film director, and a particularly obnoxious one at that. His work was utterly crass, routinely scraping the bottom of the barrel with a dedication that might almost be admirable if the films were any better. His final contributions to cinema – Dirty Weekend (1993) and Parting Shots (1998) – are amongst the few films that manage to be offensive on every level, including the technical.

The suggestion that Winner once made a film that was not simply ‘good’ but actually, authentically great might, then, be met with some suspicion – but it’s true. West 11 (1963), made early in his career, ought to be included in any significant survey of British film of its era, a statement of intent by a young troublemaker out to make his mark.

As with any film made a full 55 years ago, the modern viewer will need to make some adjustments, starting with that title. These days, West 11 is one of the more agreeable districts of London town, Notting Hill and its environs, where real estate is expensive even by the standards of the British capital, and where foppish booksellers can woo film stars (if the movies are to be believed, at least).

‘West 11’ (Michael Winner, 1663)

Back in 1963, Notting Hill was a different proposition. It was a hub for West Indian immigration and the location for the first modern race riot in Britain. It was also bedsit land, where rent was cheap and expectations low.

It was the sort of place, in other words, where you’d find the likes of Joe Beckett. Winner’s antihero, played by Alfred Lynch, is a shiftless type. He can’t keep a job and doesn’t want to either, not when there are clubs, coffee bars and parties to go to. He’s notionally dating the flighty Ilsa (Kathleen Breck, cast after the producer decided Winner’s first choice, Julie Christie, wasn’t going to amount to anything), but he’s not going to let that get in the way if he can pull someone else. And nor will she, for that matter.

Chance connects him with Richard Dyce, an ex-military man (or so he says), now on his uppers, cadging money and pulling scams. He’s got a new scheme brewing, one that promises to be a nice little earner, but he needs someone to help him out…

It’s taken from a play (The Furnished Room by Laura Del-Rivo) and the adaptation, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, should not go unremarked – Winner seldom enjoyed such propitious material. But a good script can only take you so far; Winner was 28 at the time, close enough in age to know what was driving his characters and, especially, the frustrations they felt.

‘West 11’ (Michael Winner, 1663)

This is a portrait of 1960s London in the last moments before it started to swing. The youngsters are ready to kick against the old order, but not yet sure how to do so. These are the future mods, the future beautiful people, and they certainly have little truck with the morals of the time – Winner is characteristically frank about the physical nature of Joe’s relations with Ilsa. The only aspect that really dates this depiction of youth culture is the music – had it been made even a couple of months later, they would surely have been grooving to The Beatles rather than the modern jazz the clubs play here.

As it is, the hangover from the war lingers still. There are hints of a Graham Greene influence here: Joe’s a lapsed Catholic and is eventually troubled by his long-dormant conscience. But Winner is much less interested in reaching for heaven than he is in squalid reality: this is a world of copper’s narks and fascist demagogues (agitating for ‘Britain First’, plus ça change…)

Most of all, it’s a world where a creature like ‘Dickie’ Dyce can flourish; Eric Portman, who plays Dyce, is best known these days for his contributions to the wartime films of Powell & Pressburger (notably A Canterbury Tale from 1944), but Dyce may be his finest performance, a proper scoundrel ready to pounce on anyone with a better nature than himself.

Looking backwards, we can see it lays out everything we expect from Winner – the characteristic impatience of his work and the concomitant willingness to offend that, for once, works to the film’s advantage. Thereafter he went off the boil, as though having made one masterpiece he couldn’t be bothered to make another.