Winner was an only child, born in Hampstead, London, England, to Helen (née Zlota) and George Joseph Winner (1910-1975), a company director. His family was Jewish; his mother was Polish and his father of Russian extraction. Following his father's death, Winner's mother gambled recklessly and sold art and furniture worth around £10m at the time, bequeathed to her not only for her life but to Michael thereafter. She died aged 78 in 1984.
He began his screen career as an assistant director of BBC television programmes, cinema shorts, and full-length "B" productions, occasionally writing screenplays. In 1957 he directed his first travelogue, This is Belgium, shot largely on location in East Grinstead.
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 1960.
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.