Released in the U.K. as The System and the U.S. as The Girl-Getters in 1964, this unheralded little gem of a film is not only a vivid snapshot of the swinging sixties but a surprisingly frank and intelligent treatment of sexual gamesmanship and barely disguised class warfare promoted as a typical youth exploitation picture in the style of a “Beach Party” movie by distributor American International Pictures.
More surprising is the fact that it is directed by Michael Winner, who never got much if any respect from U.S. critics. Most of them dismissed him as a hack based on a checkered film career that includes the immensely popular Death Wish and its many sequels starring Charles Bronson as well as Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), a satanic horror thriller – The Sentinel (1977), a sluggish remake of The Big Sleep (1978) and Scream for Help (1984), which prompted one critic to state, “Where most Winner films go straight from offensive to forgotten, this teenager-in-peril movie went from forgotten to such deep obscurity that it’s often missing even from Winner filmographies.”
But there was a great stretch between 1964 and 1971 when Winner was making some truly unique and unconventional mainstream movies – Hannibal Brooks (1969), an eccentric WWII action-adventure with Michael J. Pollard, Oliver Reed and an elephant named Lucy and Lawman (1971), a cynical, hard-edged take on the American West starring Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Lee J. Cobb. Yet it’s his mid-sixties movies that I love. In addition to The System, Winner also directed the delightful heist film The Jokers, and a cynical satire of the advertising world, I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘isname (1967). The connection between all three of these movies is Oliver Reed.
Forget those images in your head of Reed in his later career when he was bloated, indiscriminate about the roles he took and overacted with abandon in Spasms, Fanny Hill, Gor, Hired to Kill, Superbrain, and many more. In The System, you get your first look at Reed after the opening credits, as he waits for a train to arrive, bringing hordes of tourists, particularly young single girls, to the seaside town of Roxham. We see Jane Merrow peering out the train window as it pulls in and spots Reed watching her – the camera pushes in on him in a sudden rush of movement and – you are suddenly struck by this dark, intense presence. It’s like discovering an exciting new actor except it’s the young Oliver Reed and his performance in The System feels like a major screen debut even though he had already been acting in films for at least seven years.
Reed stars as a photographer nicknamed Tinker who uses his camera as a means to chat up, date and seduce an endless number of “birds” throughout the summer season. While he does make a modest living selling the tourist photos he takes for local businessman Larsey (Harry Andrews), his main interest is the hunt, a relentless pursuit of pleasure and sexual conquests that often become little more than gaming bets among his mates. From first impressions, Reed is a total cad, supremely self-confident and devilishly handsome with no real ambition to do anything else, even though he is long past his teenage years. From the moment he meets Nicola (Jane Merrow), however, the gauntlet is thrown down.
Unlike any of his previous victims, she is a cool, slightly aloof upper-class beauty, completely at ease with herself and her effect on the local men. As they begin a dance of seduction, she matches Tinker’s flirtations and witticisms in often provocative ways and the challenge to win her becomes an obsession for him. The odds are stacked against him, of course, because she is clearly out of his league yet they enter into a passionate affair anyway.
Is Nicola just slumming, getting her sexual kicks with someone beneath her class? Or will she choose Tinker over her stuffy Eton and Cambridge educated suitors? The film has a bittersweet flavor to it with a layer of sadness running just beneath the surface. It’s not what you expect to find in a movie with the tag line, “How boys get girls…and where! And why! And How!”
Winner’s film captures the sunny, carefree days of a seaside resort in the summer and also the end of the season as winter closes in, the tourists go home and all of the love affairs come to an end. Nicolas Roeg’s black-and-white cinematography evokes another time and place when young men wore blazers and ties, their dates had teased hair and bouffants, and they all did the twist. The British Invasion was in full swing in the U.S. and radio stations were playing the songs of The Beatles and other UK pop stars like Petulia Clark, The Animals and The Searchers, who provide the film’s catchy title tune, “The System”.
Winner employs many of the stylistic devices of the French New Wave and even today the film feels fresh and spontaneous. Reed, in particular, is a revelation as a cheeky bastard who somehow makes us care about him. The sequence where he is beaten at tennis in front of Nicola by one of her posh boyfriends is one of many standout scenes, illustrating the huge social gulf between the couple as well as Tinker’s attempt to hide his complete shame with self-deprecating humor. Another unforgettable bit is the sensual bubble-blowing mating dance between Tinker and Nicola.
There’s plenty of humor too – intentional or not – as Tinker cuts loose on the dance floor. There is obviously a madman lurking just beneath that dashing facile.
Jane Merrow is gorgeous and suitably enigmatic as Nicola (Winner originally wanted Julie Christie for the role but his producer nixed the idea because he didn’t think she was sexy enough!). Unfortunately, Merrow made few films, concentrating instead on British television for most of her career. She was once engaged to David Hemmings, who turns up in The System in an early role as one of Tinker’s new friends who is learning the system.
For many years The System was only available in the U.S. on VHS from Kino International. You could also purchase an all-region DVD of it from the UK as part of “The Best of British Collection” if you owned an all-region player. The best option arrived in September 2019 from Powerhouse Films which issued the film on Blu-Ray as part of their limited edition Indicator series. Once again you need an all-region player to view this PAL edition but it is worth the extra effort because it is a stunning high definition remaster and chock full of great extras like Winner’s rarely seen documentary short Haunted England (1961), interviews with Reed co-stars Jane Merrow, John Porter-Davison and Jeremy Burnham on the film, audio commentary with film historians Thirza Wakefield and Melanie Williams and a collectible 32-page insert booklet.
Of course, the Powerhouse release raises the question of what other early period Michael Winner films are available on Blu-Ray or DVD. The answer is rather disappointing. I’ll Never Forget What’s‘isname, one of the other great Oliver Reed/Michael Winner films, is an out of print PAL DVD but you can still find used copies of it on Amazon (it has an excellent audio commentary by Winner). The Jokers, a stylish heist comedy that made Reed a star in England and gave Michael Crawford one of his first leading roles, is still not available on any format.
The good news is that you still pick up a PAL DVD from Network On Air of West 11 (1963), a crime drama crossed with the “kitchen sink” social realism of the period that features Alfred Lynch in a role that should have elevated him to star status. Two Winner titles from his peak years that I mentioned earlier are also available: you can also purchase a PAL Blu-Ray from Powerhouse Films of Hannibal Brooks and Twilight Time Releasing offers Lawman on Blu-Ray.
Other websites of interest: