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Winner, Michael (1935-2012)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Winner, Michael (1935-2012)

Michael Winner has been one of the most controversial British directors of recent times, consistently critical of an indigenous cinema culture that he regards as failing to support film-makers who see film as popular entertainment.

Winner was born in London on 30 October 1935 to Jewish expatriate parents, a Polish mother and Russian father. During his conventional middle-class education (boarding school and Cambridge, where he read Law), Winner displayed enormous energy and self-belief, bluffing his way into film studios and interviewing stars. He learned his craft as assistant director on television series, shorts, and 'B' features, including a spy thriller, Shoot to Kill (1961), which he also wrote, and the nudist picture Some Like it Cool (1961). He graduated to first features with Play it Cool (1962), a pop musical starring Billy Fury.

Winner's first significant film was West 11 (1963), a sympathetic study of rootless drifters in the then seedy Notting Hill area of London. Filmed on location (always Winner's preference), with a script by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, the film remains an interesting contribution to the working-class realism wave of the early 1960s. Following differences with his producer, Daniel Angel, Winner (who had wanted to cast Julie Christie in the main female role) resolved to produce as well as direct his films and set up his own company, Scimitar. The System (1964) and the hectic, dystopian I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name (1967) were paired pieces starring Oliver Reed that continued Winner's exploration of alienated youth adrift in a rising tide of affluence, dreaming of an alternative life they can never achieve. These films and the exuberant 'Swinging London' comedy The Jokers (1966), also starring Reed, were well-suited to Winner's restless, intrusive camera style and staccato editing. They were followed by Hannibal Brooks (1969), a witty Second World War comedy written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, which attracted attention in America and led to Winner pursuing a Hollywood career in the 1970s.

Winner now developed a new reputation as an efficient maker of violent action thrillers, often starring Charles Bronson. The most successful and controversial was Death Wish (US, 1974), with Bronson cast as a liberal architect who embraces vengeance after the murder of his wife and daughter. An intelligent analysis of the deep roots of vigilantism in American society, Death Wish is restrained in its depiction of violence. With his obsessive need to work, Winner accepted many inferior projects, including two weak Death Wish sequels, though occasionally he tried to make more prestigious films, notably The Nightcomers (1972), a prequel to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, made in Britain with Marlon Brando; and A Chorus of Disapproval (1989), a satisfying version of Alan Ayckbourn's bittersweet comedy.

By the 1990s Winner had become less prolific, and reaped no benefit from the Lottery-prompted rise in genre film-making, which favoured the young and inexperienced. Dirty Weekend (1993), a rape-revenge movie with a female vigilante, aroused considerable controversy, but hardly enhanced Winner's reputation; Parting Shots (1998), a comedy revenge thriller suffused with allusions to Death Wish and restaurant scenes invoking Winner's current incarnation as a food critic, is perhaps his swan song.

Gough-Yates, Kevin, Michael Winner - Director (London: National Film Theatre, 1970)
Harding, Bill, The Films of Michael Winner (London: Frederick Muller, 1978)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997)
Winner, Michael, Winner Takes All: a Life of Sorts (London: Robson, 2004)

Andrew Spicer, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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