Lewis Gilbert (6 March 1920 – 23 February 2018)
With his family’s music hall background (Gilbert first appeared on stage with them aged five), and a handful of movie roles as a child in the Thirties (mostly uncredited), it would have seemed appropriate for Lewis Gilbert to seek a career in front of the camera, but though Alexander Korda offered to send him to RADA, Gilbert elected to study direction instead. The first movie he worked on as an assistant? Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939). Not a bad start, but with the onset of World War II, Gilbert joined the Royal Air Force’s film unit and worked on several wartime documentaries. Further experience came when he was seconded to the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, where he was allowed to shoot much of the work assigned to American director William Keighley.
After the war, Gilbert continued to make documentaries, but it was in the Fifties that he began to make his mark as a director of features. Working for low-budget outfits such as Nettlefold Films, Gilbert honed his craft, and made a number of well received movies that brought him greater attention and the chance to work on a succession of true stories from the recent war. For a while, Gilbert was the go-to director for these kinds of movies, and between 1953 and 1962 he made half a dozen war-related movies, all of which increased his standing within the movie community, and allowed him to make a range of other movies during the same period that highlighted his versatility. But it was Alfie (1966) that really put him on the map, earning him his sole Academy Award nomination, and proving once and for all that his strongest suit was in relationship dramas.
Anyone following his career up until this point, would have been surprised when his next movie proved to be the fifth Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967). But Gilbert proved himself to be at home amidst all the over-sized sets and the absurdity of a Bond movie, and returned twice more to make The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 – terrific) and Moonraker (1979 – uh-oh). In between his first and second Bonds, Gilbert made a number of movies that didn’t fare so well with critics or audiences, and with some, like The Adventurers (1970), Gilbert would later claim that they shouldn’t have been made. But after his Roger Moore one-two at the end of the Seventies, the Eighties saw Gilbert make two bona fide British classics in Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). He made his last movie, the enjoyable but slight Before You Go in 2002, but at eighty-two, retirement wasn’t exactly a surprise.
If he had one regret, it was always that he was unable to direct Oliver! (1968), a movie he had developed with its composer, Lionel Bart, but which he was unable to make due to contractual obligations. Gilbert was a director who, Bond movies aside, always looked to the characters first, and it was this focus that allowed him to make so many wonderful movies over more than fifty years. He was honest about his work, and some of his collaborators, but always tried to do the best he could do with the material provided. He wasn’t an auteur in the accepted sense, but his ability to draw out excellent performances from his casts, and to move easily between comedy and drama – often in the same scene in a movie – was a constant throughout his career. And he was a realist. Of Alfie, he had this to say: “Paramount backed Alfie because it was going to be made for $500,000, normally the sort of money spent on executives’ cigar bills.”
1 – Time, Gentlemen, Please! (1952)
2 – Reach for the Sky (1956)
3 – The Admirable Crichton (1957)
4 – Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)
5 – Sink the Bismarck! (1960)
6 – Alfie (1966)
7 – You Only Live Twice (1967)
8 – The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
9 – Educating Rita (1983)
10 – Shirley Valentine (1989)