Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009

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“I don’t want a fertile imagination, I don’t want to know if society’s to blame, I just want to catch criminals”

The film opens with two heavies waiting in a London flat, as a car pulls up in the street below they wake Burton giving him time to wash his face and compose himself.  As he does so, the owner of the flat returns and they hold  him captive.  Fresh and alert, Burton enters the room and- with barely a word- begins to deliver a vicious beating and then takes out a cut-throat razor.  Our next sight of the victim is when Burton looks up from beside a drip of blood (having made a crass joke about pigeon droppings) and sees him tied to a chair hanging from a window horrifically lacerated.  On the other hand our next view of Burton sees him after he returns home and gently wakes his Mum with a cup of tea and offers to take her for a ride out to the coast.  Now THAT is how to start a film!

This is one of those films that you rarely hear about, almost a lost classic.  You’ll be discussing Get Carter or The Long Good Friday and someone will say ‘you should see Villain‘, only as no-one ever has the conversation moves on quickly.  It’s such a shame that this is forgotten and shite like The Business is relatively lauded.  Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the kind of character that in summary sounds implausible; he’s a gay, sadistic, sociopathic gangland boss who lives with his Mum and rules part of London through fear.  It sounds implausible except that there was a guy like that in the sixties called Ronnie (or maybe Reggie, I get them confused) Kray.  And, whether you find him plausible or not, the depth of characters like Dakin put this film streets ahead of most efforts in the genre.

It isn’t just about Burton- and he is compelling, just the right side of overdoing it- everyone on show here is a cut above.  Especially Ian McShane who, as Wolfie a small-time hustler and object of Dakin’s sadistic lust, has an even more compelling part and really makes the most of it.  Even some of the minor characters are fascinatingly written- Nigel Davenport’s dogged, determined and stoical policeman Matthews who appreciates the futility of his task but presses on anyway; Joss Ackland’s gangster who spends an entire hold-up chomping down hard-boiled eggs to ease his stomach ulcer; top-notch Irish character actor T.P.McKenna’s rival gangster who is far more businessman than criminal; and smarmy, velvet-purring Donald Sinden as a crooked, seedy MP.

In fact, it isn’t just the characters- the plot is formulaic but the dialogue is marvellous (“he’s a bit bent for a start. You know the type, thinks the world owes him something. A wanker“, “you festering pig“, “Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday“) especially when Dakin is upbraiding anyone who dares to even look at a woman (“sordid!“) or doesn’t wash their hands after taking a piss.  I also liked the underlying themes that crime is just a job, a means of employment on both sides of the law and that removing one criminal just creates an opportunity for another jobbing criminal.  The crime-as-a-business angle is never overplayed but the existence of a structure, hierarchy and protocol as a given is an important aspect to Villain.

I’d like to mention Christopher Challis’ excellent cinematography, not only does he handle the task of transmitting gritty realism with aplomb but he manages to capture an excellent car chase and also take very intimate and graphic shots of various fights including the main crime around which the film revolves.  Superb.  The soundtrack too (Jonathan Hodge) is excellent, switching from tinny funk to stabbing synthy strings to John Carpenter-like piano motifs; all of it is reminiscent of films that would follow but oddly Hodge himself would get very little more work, similarly the director (Michael Tuchner) did little else of note.  But at least they did this.  A proper British gangster thriller that I loved- they even found a space for a Michael Robbins cameo- 8/10.

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Holiday on the Buses (1973)

March 8, 2009

This is the third On The Buses film, I got a bit confused after watching the first one (notes here) and should have been watching Mutiny On The Buses.  D’oh!  And of course you know what you’re getting when you put one of these movies on- bawdy humour, outrageous set-pieces and very dated attitudes.  It’s just disposable daftness, no reason to get excited.  In this film Blakey, Stan and Jack have all been sacked from the bus depot (by Grange Hill bastard/big-screen Hitler Mr Bronson no less!) and find employment on a holiday camp.  As soon as Stan’s family arrive to stay for a holiday the film continues in the usual vein, only in summer sunshine- that must be CGI surely!

The usual characters are augmented by a few seventies TV comedy stars (Wilfrid Bramble, Henry McGee, Arthur Mullard) and the change of scenery and fresh faces reinvigorate the format and make the film work pretty well for a while.  It’s unsustainable sadly, despite the film being less than an hour and a half long, and the film grows tired with the same jokes repeated as it limps towards the titles.

So, I enjoyed it- but I wouldn’t want anyone to know that this is my kind of film.  Especially as it features a shot of Olive’s bare arse!  4/10

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On The Buses (1971)

March 4, 2009

On The Buses was a popular and indeed populist British TV sitcom of the late 1960s/early 1970s and, as was common at the time, spawned a number of spin-off films which were either extensions of the premise or else rehashes with two or three episodes strung together and re-enacted as a film.  In the main, they were inferior to the original product- startlingly so in many cases- but On The Buses was actually a little better.

What distinguishes the film isn’t any greater sophistication, loftier ambition or production values- it is the budget.  For a programme about a bus driver and his conductor (and their bawdy shenanigans) being unable to stretch to many external shoots obviously prevented logistical and writing difficulties.  In the film, however, we see Stan crashing his bus into a phone box and a bus shelter.  We see him take a driving test on a skid pan, injuring Blakey in the process, and we get to see Stan and Jack trick several women drivers into driving their buses onto the motorway.  Hilarity prevails!  Okay, so I’m being a little facetious but it is still enjoyable in its own way.

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I had a really interesting conversation with a guy about British cinema in the 70s last year.  He completely wrote it off.  He pointed to the sex comedies and sit-com spin-offs and contrasted it to what was coming out of Hollywood at the time.  When a man says “while Michael was having Fredo whacked we were watching Robin Askwith hiding in wardrobes“, then you have to concede that he has a point.  But the argument was skewed, that was the best Hollywood would ever get and British cinema was in a rut but still produced the likes of Get Carter, The Go-Between, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Wicker Man, Barry Lyndon, Paper Tiger and Don’t Look Now.  On top of this I argued, and still argue, that there is some merit in the likes of On The Buses.  Movies, it is sometimes forgotten, are made to entertain and this is an entertaining movie.  The characters, familiar from the TV show, are well-drawn (if a little one-dimensional) and played consummately- not least by the underrated Michael Robbins who plays Arthur.  The storyline, which was little more than an excuse to string together some gags and the action sequences above, is actually pretty interesting and resonant of the time.  Future historians would do well to dig out On The Buses and Carry On At Your Convenience if they want to learn all about Britain at the time.

The bus company, being understaffed are exploited by the drivers who do not have to fear the sack.  They choose to recruit women drivers and the men (portrayed as the heroes) try and force them out so that they can go back to their cushy, well-paid lifestyles.   In the meantime they are still successfully chatting up every attractive young girl in sight despite being middle-aged, out of shape and unattractive (Jack’s teeth!).  What makes it so resonant is the ‘battle of the sexes’ angle- more specifically the blatantly sexist way that it is portrayed.  It’s all done in good fun and there’s no malice to get offended about; if you believe anyone would take seriously a film that suggests all women are moaners who are afraid of spiders and have no road sense then you’ve got bigger problems than this cheeky number.

The point is that this is low and sometimes painfully telegraphed humour, but funny nonetheless.  Is it any less worthy than, say, the films of Mel Brooks?  5/10

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