Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009


“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.



The Cruel Sea (1953)

March 8, 2009


I knew I was going to like this.  I didn’t have a doubt in my mind.  Even the opening Jack Hawkins voice-over “The men are the heroes.  The heroines are the ships.  The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea” didn’t piss me off the way that it normally would.  Of course that kind of expectation usually sets me up to be disappointed as my hopes are too high, but not in this case.

The great thing about The Cruel Sea is that it doesn’t pull any punches.  Films made pretty soon after the close of the second world war often gave a very airbrushed account of the war but in The Cruel Sea, we see the people left behind die or desert or cheat or grow apart.  We also see the heroes as real people they die, have breakdowns, fake illness, squabble and have doubts and concerns about the rights and wrongs of the war.  Tremendously realistic stuff this.  I haven’t checked, but I’d guess that this was based on a someone’s non-fiction account of their wartime experiences.  It features first-person narration from the main character and follows a pretty episodic structure.  That said, this style of narrative works well and allows the film to draw the viewer in to a series of extremely tense moments.  The intelligent use of silence and periods of intense concentration really crank up the tension which director Charles Frend stretches out for long periods of time.  Very controlled film-making that.

And so what we have here is the war through the eyes of a Navy captain who guides ships which escort cargo convoys through the u-boat ridden waters of the Atlantic.  It was made by Ealing and features a great cast who all do a great job.  Hawkins in the lead role is the star but Donald Sinden comes awfully close to stealing some of his scenes, he just doesn’t have the kind of material is given.  The contrast between the grim stoicism with which Hawkins issues the instruction to drop munitions amongst the survivors of a wrecked freighter in the hope of destroying the u-boat he believes is beneath them and the hollow, broken remorse he shows in the scenes from that evening are the key to the whole thing.  Horrible things were done and had to be done.  Regrettable things, things that will live on your conscience until your dying breath.  But they were done for the greater good and the sacrifice and loss and pain and regret that everyone endured was necessary to prevent Nazi success (though the film takes the last bit as read rather and barely considers it).

There are sequences in this film which are almost unbearably tense.  As the ship lies still in the presumed presence of a u-boat under repair, the men are shown inside listening for the slightest sound, dipping with sweat, crossing themselves, lookin anxiously at one another. All of the time there is almost total silence on screen.  The release of the tension when they move on again is enormous and the extent of that shows the strength of the film as a means of bringing the reality of the war at sea home.

And that is what there is to take away from The Cruel Sea, its very real depiction of the awful conditions that the war really entailed.  Harrowing and memorable.  9/10