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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Night and the City (1950)

February 10, 2009

Greed, deception and unrequited love.  What more could you want?  Richard Widmark leads as an American wide-boy trying to get rich quick in post-war London, hustling friends and strangers alike with the promise of “a life of ease and plenty”.   His success in the role is patchy, his manic desperation as the film progresses is of pivotal importance but he doesn’t convey charm anywhere near as well as Machiavellian quick-wittedness.

The speed with which the story moves is amazing considering the depth which is achieved.  The film opens with Harry Fabian (Widmark) running and seems to move at the same relentless pace right through to its climax.  He even says at one point “I’ve been running all of my life”.  It is a very Graham Greene-type story filled with impressive minor characters- Figler the King of the Beggars, Googin the Forger, Anna O’Leary and Molly the Flower Lady- and teems with anger and frustration (expressed in every Widmark moment) and a resignation that the underworld will proceed with little obstruction by the force of law.  There is no-one in the film to root for, they’re all bad.  Even the non-criminal characters, Mary and Adam (Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) are sappy and unappealing.  At least the hoods have a spark of life in them!

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The film, by Jules Dassin- a personal favourite of mine, features a number of memorable scenes including a tremendously realised wrestle between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a wonderful sequence from the rear of an open-topped car as one of Kristo’s hoods spreads a message to street dwellers and the final chase through the dimly lit and foggy backstreets of London is perfect noir.  The narrative is clear but never condescending and the mood is consistent throughout with great performances and really well designed and exeuted shots.

In the supporting roles, Herbert Lom (brooding magnificently as Kristos) and Francis L. Sullivan (Mr Jaggers from David Lean’s wonderful Great Expectations) are crucial as counterpoints to Widmark.  His unchannelled ambition and enthusiastic self-promotion are contrasted nicely by the men who he wants to rival, intimidating and ruthless with the quiet confidence of men with power they show Fabian up for the callow chancer that he is.  That Sullivan’s character (the bizarrely named Nosseross) is also in a loveless marriage of convenience that he desperately wants to transform into a real love affair simply adds further depth to his performance.

Unrequited love and the exploitation of it is another theme which Dassin depicts in all it’s sordidness.  Nosseross, as I’ve said, loves his wife- though he does describe her at one point as “bought and paid for”- and she exploits this with no kind feelings.  When she leaves him he says to himself “No, Helen, you’ll come back. And I’ll want to take you back”.  Fabian exploits Mary’s love for him and even she in turn doesn’t share the feelings that Adam has for her.  This is an uncompromising and bleakly cynical film full of unsympathetic characters without scruple or conscience.  A great uncovering of a very real underworld culture.

The bleakness inherent in this film- and perhaps all great noirs- is beautifully expressed in its expressionistic use of dramatic monochrome staging.  A tremendous picture- 8/10.

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Performance (1970)

February 9, 2009

For a long time during my teens I nurtured a probably unhealthy obsession with Brian Jones the result of which has been a weaning-off process causing me to lock away my library of ‘was Brian murdered?’ books (of course he was) and avoid seeing this for the better part of two decades.  Seeing Mick play Brian- to all intents and purposes- opposite the girl Keith stole from Brian was always going to be a bit weird.  That the film is an almost total headfuck anyway, didn’t help matters either.

Performance could be the ultimate Emperor’s New Clothes movie.  It could be a trippy, surreal but ultimately vacuous exercise in style over content from which unintended layers of meaning and allusion can be divined.  It could be Chauncey Gardiner as a film, I’m absolutely aware of that.  But I’m going to follow my instinct that it isn’t.  And, furthermore, even if it is I’m going to say that the allegorical nature of the film is no less valid if it is unintentional anyway.  Why should it be?

The film opens in the brutal world of London gangsters with Chas (an utterly fantastic James Fox performance) and we get about half an hour of a fast-paced gritty crime drama in the vein of Get Carter or Villain but then suddenly lurches head-first into a psychedelic acid nightmare full of “long-hairs, druggers, beatniks and foreigners” blurring the lines between reality and surreality.  In exactly the same way that Chas gets discombobulated by what he experiences, so does the viewer.  The resulting confusion is deliberate as the two worlds are shown as more similar than they are different.  The integration of the two worlds occurs by allusion during the magnificent ‘Memo From Turner’ sequence and then in actuality.

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The blending of identities and merging of entities is a recurrent theme.  Chas and Turner, the hedonistic rock star in seclusion played by Mick Jagger, are increasingly shown as similar below their surface differences, they could almost be a masculine and feminine version of the same person.  That duality is expressed in many ways; both literally (swapping styles of dress, superimposed faces etc) and by suggestion (“there’s nothing wrong with me…I’m normal”).  In fact the whole film investigates this identity confusion: there are mirrors and juxtaposed faces, picture disappear from frames between shots, sexual confusion, androgyny, altered perceptions, sanity and insanity, domination and submission, appearance changes and role swapping.  Throughout the gangland scenes the phrase “it’s not a takeover, it’s a merger” is repeated and, in the end, we are presented with the surreal merging of people- Turner becomes Lucy, Chas becomes Turner, Turner becomes Chas.  This bizarre distillation of Borgesian confusion is both challenging and illuminating.

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As a film, as a piece of entertainment, I would imagine that Performance might be considered a failure.  There is no obvious hero or villain, no linear narrative, no clear outcome and the performances range from Fox’s coruscating portrayal of Chas to Pallenberg’s patchy and uneven Pherber.  As a work of art, however, it is outstanding.  And the soundtrack is incredible- 9/10.

And everyone should own a copy of Happy Mondays’ Bummed which samples this film’s dialogue heavily.

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Get Carter (1971)

January 10, 2009

Gritty, suspenseful, uncompromising.  An iconic anti-hero fueled by fury and loathing.  A perennially quotable script.  Classy, eye-catching direction.  Great performances all round.  A tremendous soundtrack.  A brilliant ending.  Frankly, it’s flawless – 10/10.

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Mona Lisa (1986)

January 2, 2009

This has been waiting on my shelf to be watched (on video, then on DVD) for the best part of twenty years.  I’ve wanted to watch it since its cinema release, when I was too young.  Eventually when I could watch it, I suddenly didn’t want to as it could only be an anti-climax.  And somehow over the years, that pessimism has become a belief that it’s a poor film that I won’t enjoy.

But I did enjoy it and, somewhat inevitably, it is neither as good as I once believed nor as bad as I once feared.  ‘Mona Lisa’ stands as a relevant and pertinent story today (it should, it’s simply a story of unrequited love) but looks horribly dated in style.  There are lots of soft-focus close-ups of Tyson or of Tyson with Hoskins and it begins to look a bit like a Gold Blend advert.  It is harsh, perhaps, to judge a film out of context like that, but it’s how I feel.  In addition to this Michael Caine plays- with the exception of his first appearance on screen- Michael Caine.  And there is a horrible Genesis song on the soundtrack.  And the sight of Hoskins kicking two larger men during the closing scenes, when placed alongside two dwarves kicking one another, is reduced to farce when the tension really needs to be maintained and not relieved.

But aside from these minor quibbles, the film is good.  Cathy Tyson plays a fine role, though her accent wavers occasionally this helps establish her as someone trying to conceal her origins and past.  Bob Hoskins, though, is occasionally excellent as the bewildered and confused George, and always good- though some of the ‘angry’ scenes could be Bob in any number of his past roles and that dilutes their effectiveness.

The strained relationship between George and his daughter is too easily resolved to be plausible and the appearance of a white horse over is heavy-handed and unnecessary but the film is strong overall.

It is a good film, but patchy.  Some parts are excellent, some are good and others disappointing- which is, perhaps, exactly what I expected.  7/10.


Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

December 25, 2008

If you’re a British man in your twenties or thirties, the chances are you’ve probably seen this a fair few times.  The fact that I ended up watching it (again) today wasn’t by choice, therefore, but to humour someone who hadn’t seen it.  If that makes watching it sound like a chore, it is and it isn’t.  The film is ten years old now and very resonant of its time.

Four young British clothes horses (they’re models, not actors right?) end up owing a cartoonish local villain half a million pounds with only a week to pay up.  There then transpires an unlikely sequence of events in which three gangs all handle- at one time or another- a bag-load of cash, a van-load of drugs and two antique muskets.  There a few minor twists and turns and all of the loose ends are tied up in under two hours.  It is the type of movie designed to flatter the audience that they are following a labyrinthine plot when- in reality- not a lot happens.

What makes Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels so exemplary of late nineties film-making is its over-stylization.  The entire thing is drenched in sepia, it has an achingly cool soundtrack, there is cartoon violence done in CGI slo-mo, the whole thing is so obviously packaged and a product by design.  It is as if Guy Ritchie was handed copies of Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, The Italian Job and The Matrix and instructed to produce a film that combines their best bits.  It is all so fucking deliberate and meticulously planned to tick the boxes that defined that zeitgeist.

The only thing that Guy Ritchie brings to Lock, Stock… which you won’t have seen done better before is his infatuation with butch men.  This isn’t a homo-erotic thing, it is clear (with the hindsight of his subsequent offerings) that Ritchie likes and identifies with ‘tough guys’.  His films increasingly focus upon tough working class men doing tough working class things and, given his privileged upbringing, this can’t help but look a little like a posh man exercising his infatuation in public.  Which is a bit odd.  The problem is that the slang dialogue and casual homophobia sound a little too contrived to be convincing.

Having said all of this, I’m not kicking the movie.  It is entertaining and succeeds in its (limited) aims.  I’ll give it a creditable 5/10.


Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

December 25, 2008

One of the saddest legacies of my heavy-drinking days is that I’ve half-seen or half-remember so many films.  This is one of them.  Watching it today I honestly couldn’t tell if I’d seen it before in a stupor, or seen various parts of the film at various times.  Or if it is just so quotable and influential that it is one of those films which is diminished because you’ve seen so much of it before, done in inferior ways by inferior film-makers.

The plotline is interesting but pretty generic (here’s one of the ways that it could’ve been diminished, for all I know its ambiguous ending may have been a complete revelation in 1938), Michael Curtiz’s direction is zippy but dated and the script is quotable but self-consciously so.

The big thing this film has going for it is the performances of its main players.  James Cagney is in it.  See?  And he plays James Cagney better than he’s ever played him before.  Understand?  It’s a great performance, iconic and memorable.  Pat O’Brien plays the tough part of the young hood-turned-priest convincingly.  And Humphrey Bogart plays it deft and understated in the part of the slippery lawyer Frazier.

I liked a lot about watching this film- the basketball game is tremendous fun and the ending is very clever- but, for me anyway, it is less than the sum of its parts and I give it a 7/10.