Unsung Auteurs: John Mackenzie

July 15, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Scottish-born realist and hard-nosed UK crime specialist John Mackenzie.

If you’re a filmmaker with a bent for realist, violent storytelling, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better cinematic mentor than Ken Loach. That is exactly who Scottish-born director John Mackenzie was able to learn at the foot of, and the experience seared itself into his very DNA as a filmmaker. Born in 1928, Mackenzie had studied history and drama in Edinburgh before moving to England, where he began his career in film. Mackenzie’s first major credits came as an assistant director to Ken Loach on his early works Up The Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966). Loach would eventually go on to find great praise and acclaim as England’s finest and most committed practitioner of gritty, honest, deeply realistic and socially driven cinema with films like Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I, Daniel Blake and My Name Is Joe.

While John Mackenzie (who passed away in 2011) observed and absorbed many of Loach’s skills as a director – shooting on location with low budgets,  working with non-actors, telling tough, uncompromising stories – his final resume ultimately lacks the consistency and striking sense of identity of the British master that he apprenticed with. Mackenzie also drifted off to America later in his career, where he made a number of interesting but financially unsuccessful films that failed to make a real impact with critics or audiences. And while John Mackenzie does boast one vital, stone-cold classic in amongst his output – 1980’s The Long Good Friday, considered by many to rival 1971’s Get Carter as the best British gangster film of all time – he remains a largely unsung auteur of UK cinema.

John Mackenzie (left) on the set of The Long Good Friday.

Mackenzie worked solidly in British television before making his big screen debut in 1971 with two films. While the family dysfunction drama One Brief Summer is largely lost and near impossible to see, Mackenzie’s other film from that year is a bravura thriller that proved the nascent director to have a real understanding of what it takes to hook an audience. An exercise in pure dread and wire-tight tension, Unman, Wittering & Zigo stars David Hemmings as a new teacher at an upper class school who is easily manipulated by his pupils when he starts to believe that they may have murdered his predecessor. It’s a truly chilling work in desperate need of rediscovery.

Mackenzie’s next film is another deserving of greater attention, at least as a minor cult film. 1972’s Made boasts the only feature film performance of veteran British folk singer and songwriter Roy Harper, and a stellar turn from Carol White, who Mackenzie knew from Ken Loach’s Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow. The downbeat story of a troubled single mother who has a fraught relationship with a musician, Made is a gritty, street level slice of early 1970s life. Mackenzie owes a very obvious debt to Ken Loach with this tough little number, which showcases his skills with actors and real life locations.

Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday.

The next eight years of Mackenzie’s career were spent on the small screen with a number of TV plays and jobs on episodic television. In 1980, the director delivered what remains his key work. Hard, tough, nasty and utterly uncompromising, The Long Good Friday introduced the world at large to the singular talents of Bob Hoskins, who goes to Robert De Niro levels of brilliance as Harold Shand, a violent mobster who rules his particular roost with an iron fist. Filled with local vernacular and dosed with an undeniable sense of realism, The Long Good Friday (which also showcases early performances from Helen Mirren and Pierce Brosnan) is a masterclass in British crime cinema. A minor hit upon its release, the influence of the film is profound, with practically every UK crime released since owing it some kind of debt. With its infamously open ending (in which Shand is left in a car with an IRA hitman), Mackenzie even found himself besieged with requests to make a sequel to the film. “Surely this would ruin the film’s audacious ending?” asked Hot Dog Magazine in 2005. “It would,” Mackenzie replied, “which is why I would never do one. But I’ve been inundated by Bob Hoskins and Barry [Hanson, producer]. Because you never saw Harold get killed, they want him to have jumped out of the car or something. But there’s no way I’m going to cheat like that. I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

Though it lacks the same kind of cache as The Long Good Friday, Mackenzie’s follow up film was nearly just as powerful and incendiary. 1981’s A Sense Of Freedom is another realist slab of crime cinema based on the autobiography of Jimmy Boyle, a notorious Scottish gangster and convicted murderer who eventually became an acclaimed artist, sculptor and novelist. The film is intelligent, haunting and utterly uncompromising, particularly in its depiction of Boyle’s time in prison, while David Hayman delivers a truly compelling central performance. Though Mackenzie would partially return to tough, gritty, Ken Loach-style slice-of-life cinema with 1985’s excellent The Innocent (the deeply moving story of a young boy beset by problems on every side) and, to a lesser extent, 2000’s When The Sky Falls (starring US import Joan Allen as a crusading Irish journalist), A Sense Of Freedom represented something of a full-stop to the director’s early career.

David Hayman in A Sense Of Freedom.

After that, Mackenzie made bigger, more standard and slightly less satisfying films like 1983’s The Honorary Consul (a somewhat flat adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel starring Richard Gere and Michael Caine) and 1984’s The Fourth Protocol (an adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s espionage thriller starring Michael Caine and Mackenzie’s early career discovery Pierce Brosnan), while his detour to America proved largely fruitless. Though undeniably interesting and enjoyable, the likes of 1986’s Act Of Vengeance (a telemovie starring Charles Bronson), 1990’s The Last Of The Finest (a cop drama led by Brian Dennehy and Jeff Fahey), 1992’s Ruby (starring Danny Aiello as the infamous killer of Lee Harvey Oswald) and 2003’s Quicksand (a by-the-book thriller starring Michael Keaton and late career Mackenzie regular Michael Caine) were considerably below Mackenzie’s best work.

Though John Mackenzie’s best films were undeniably made earlier in his career, this daring and prolific director boasts a fistful of truly fine films that should see him celebrated far more often when lists of British filmmakers that really matter are assembled.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Ida Lupino, John V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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