I suspect that, if you were to ask many people with a passing familiarity with the UK film industry, to name some British crime films made in the 1970s, they’d come up with one (Get Carter) or possibly two (Get Carter and The Long Good Friday) titles. In fact, there were handful of them made, especially during the first half of the decade, and they often featured a-grade stars. John Wayne was imported to clean up the London streets in Brannigan (75), Sean Connery was a cop on the edge in The Offence (72) and Oliver Reed was causing all kinds of trouble in Sitting Target (72). Where the genre seems to have differed from Italy, in particular, was that the lower to mid budgeted programmers simply didn’t get made: there are no equivalents to a Stelvio Massi or even Umberto Lenzi, and no homegrown genre stars in the style of Maurizio Merli or Franco Nero, or even Jean-Paul belmondo and Alain Delon in France.
It’s a shame, as there were a number of personable young actors around at the time who could have gone on to forge worthwhile – or at least interesting – careers, if the industry had been there to support them. Hwyel Bennett, for instance, made an impression in films such as Loot (70) and Endless Night (71), but then spent most of the 70s in television. Edward Woodward may have made a name for himself in Callan, but his film career tailed off after The Wicker Man (73). That there was such a wasted generation of talent is purely down to the fact that the types of productions that should have been employing them became almost solely the preserve of television, and actors follow the work. Instead, the only film genre that had any kind of impact was the sex comedy, and there’s no further evidence of how screwed up British cinema was than that Robin Askwith became a bigger star than Simon Ward.
Possibly the closest England came to having a bonafide crime film star was Ian McShane – not that many people realise this nowadays – who featured in Francis Megahy’s little seen Freelance (71), the aforementioned Sitting Target, Casper Wrede’s Ransom (75) and another film by Megahy, Dirty Money (79). Again, however, his chances were limited, and he spent as much time working on TV or making films abroad as on domestic product.
Michael Tucher’s 1971 film Villain stars McShane as a liekable pimp, dealer and general hustler, essentially not too different from the actor’s later TV character Lovejoy, but without the education and sense of injustice. He also happens to be the boyfriend of Vic Dakin (Richard Burton), a clever but somewhat psycopathic gangster who rules his turf (which seems to include Acton and Shepherds Bush) with an iron hand and straight razor. Dakin raises most of his money through running protection rackets, but he’s sorely tempted when he hears that the payroll for a plastic factory is up for robbing, and joins up with fellow gangster Edgar Lewis (Joss Ackland) to do the job.Needless to say, things don’t go as planned: they manage to get the cash, but the robbery is a bit of a farce, Lewis double crosses Dakin before being arrested and dogged police inspector Matthews (Nigel Davenport) has made it his mission to nick Vic.
This is a decently made, engrossing film that mixes a fairly standard crime film plot with a earthy, grimily 70s milieu. Unsuprisingly, given that it was written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, there’s an emphasis on the dialogue, and although it deadly serious, is shares a snappy, realistic tone with their much-loved sitcoms, The Likely Lads and Porridge. Bizarrely, American actor Al Lettieri is also credited with working on the script (Lettieri later became a crime film ikon for his appearence in The Godfather).
It’s slower paced than many Italian crime films, and without the quiet menace of the best French genre product, but it has a strange, garrulous style that’s very much of the time and the place. There’s quite a bit of violence, a lot of profanity, some nudity and hardly any action. Director Micheal Tuchner – who directed another crime film, Fear is the Key, the following year – gives it all a deliberate, somewhat sombre tone. The whole gay gangster aspect must have been quite novel at the time – a sex sequence between Burton and McShane was apparently cut – but is tastefully handled. Dakin’s mother obsessed, homosexual, borderline homepathic character is obviously modeled on Ronnie Kray, and the other great influence is Nic Roeg’s Performance, which featured a similar ambiguous relationship at its heart and similar setting.
But where this really wins is in the cast, featuring just about every familiar British actor of the time. As well as Burton, McShane, Davenport and Ackland, there’s also Donald Sinden (as a sleazy, hedonistic MP who reminded me of Micheal Heseltine), Fiona Lewis (McShane’s posh girlfriend), T.P. McKenna (a dapper gangster who ends up bleeding in the back of a car, Reservoir dogs style), Colin Welland and John Hallam (Dakin’s sidekicks) and so on and so on.
This is out on a very decent quality UK DVD, presented in widescreen, although with nothing in the way of extras. Well worth checking out.