January 2, 2017


Peter Medak (1937-) b. Budapest, Hungary.

Peter Medak

Hungarian-born director in British and American films, whose black comedies have on the whole been less successful than his more serious ventures. But then few directors have achieved opposite ends of the success and failure scale with such regularity. For every ‘awful’ in Medak’s record, there’s an ‘amazing’ too; a lot of his work, though, in one way or another, is pretty dark. Born in Budapest, Medak fled his homeland during the uprising of 1956 and landed in England, where he entered a long film industry apprenticeship that included work as sound editor, film editor, assistant director and second unit director. He made his debut as a director in rather mannered style with the bizarre Negatives (1968), which attracted some attention since its star, Glenda Jackson, was ‘hot’ on the British cinema scene. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972) was an uneasy black comedy about a couple considering the mercy-killing of their child, but Medak had a much bigger commercial success with The Ruling Class (1972), a very weird comedy about a British nobleman (Peter 0′ Toole) who thinks he’s Jesus Christ. That seemed to fit Medak for a prime career in British and international cinema. In fact, the only ‘amazing’ film he made in the next decade came from Canada. The Changeling (1980) is a very superior example of the haunted house thriller whose horrors are never (well, only in flashback) seen. Its ghost lurks in narrow, confined spaces and age-old cobwebbed rooms, and Medak’s cameras track relentlessly through these claustrophobic environs like an invader in some old and murky painting stirred almost to life. It was followed by another decade of non-achievement, in which TV movies mingled with such cinematic turkeys as Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981) and The Men’s Club (1986). It took a trip back to Britain to return Medak to prominence with two real-life crime dramas. The Krays (1990) was a hard-as-ebony, extremely well set and strong reconstruction of the bloody careers of twin ganglords who ruled London’s crime from East End to West End in the Fifties. But it was topped by Let Him Have It (1991), a reconstruction of a single criminal case from the same era, an emotive affair in which it seemed a miscarriage of justice might have been done. Medak’s treatment of the affair is immaculate, and the acting couldn’t be bettered. Since then, he has returned to America, where his work has assumed a lower profile. He has also made two cinematic records of stage productions starring his wife, opera singer Julia Migenes. Romeo is Bleeding (1993) was a dark film-noir featuring Gary Oldman as a crooked cop sliding into a spiral of violence, decadence and death.

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