Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Blimey Guv'ner: VILLAIN (1971)

Maybe it was something in the water, but the early 1970s was a pretty badass time for crime flicks.  And it seemed like every country was doing their part. America went two-for-two with the classics DIRTY HARRY and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (both 1971); France had director Jean-Pierre Melville winding down his career with THE RED CIRCLE (1970) and UN FLIC (1972); Italy saw the poliziotteschi sub-genre revving up with titles like Fernando Di Leo’s MILIAN CALIBER 9 and MANHUNT (both 1972) and Enzo G. Castellari’s HIGH CRIME (1973); and the United Kingdom gave us A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and GET CARTER (both 1971).  Given such considerable company it is no surprise a film like VILLAIN (1971) would take a step back to hide in the shadows.  But maybe that is how this gritty British crime flick wanted it to be?  

The story centers on Vic Dakin (Richard Burton), a sadistic East End gangster who opens the film by beating and slashing a young man before hanging him off of his balcony.  So, yeah, he’s a bit of a villain.  But Dakin isn’t all bad as he dotes on his elderly mother that he lives with.  Wait a sec…he still lives at home? Loser! Anyway, Dakin decides to set up a heist of a payroll from a factory after he gets some second-hand info from a disgruntled worker. Already an established crime boss, Dakin wants to take a hands on approach as he and another crew team up to execute this robbery.
The robbery is a bit botched, but the hooligans get away with the money.  The plan immediately goes to hell though as Edgar (Joss Ackland), a member of the second crew, is picked up.  This is bad news as he was in charge of hiding the money.  Edgar is held under protective custody in a hospital due to his stomach condition and Dakin comes up with the idea of busting him out of there in order to find where the money is being held.  And keeping a watchful eye on Dakin this entire time is Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport), who is investigating the original stabbing of the young man.

I know it will sound like a cliché, but they just don’t make movies like VILLAIN anymore. Perhaps the film’s biggest taboo is that lead thug Vic Dakin is a bit – how do they say – lavender.  Yes, the character is gay. Inspired by the real life Ronnie Kray (of the notorious 1960s gangster Kray twins), Dakin not only has a male lover named Wolfe (a young Ian McShane), but he is also physically abusive to him.  That is a big no-no nowadays, pretty much ensuring that this stays off of studio’s “70s crime films to remake with Jason Statham” list.  The script, however, doesn’t exploit this angle at all.  Dakin is a tough gay guy and that is just a part of his character.  There is no way this trait would be handled with any restraint in today’s movie making.  If made today, we would never get a (surprisingly touching) scene like when Dakin finds his mum has passed away and there would invariably be at least one person cracking wise about his sexual proclivities (who will, of course, be beaten up badly).  The closest we get to that here is when Insp. Matthews confronts Dakin about the young man’s stabbing and says, “I don't know what you're hoping to achieve, except perhaps an orgasm.”  And even that tends to emphasize Dakin’s sadistic side, rather than his homosexuality.

The script is one of the film’s strongest assets. Coming from a James Barlow novel, the screenplay was originally adapted by actor Al Lettieri (MR. MAJEYSTK) and eventually written by Brit TV vets Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This duo has crafted some great, witty exchanges that never seem to draw attention like what passes for gangster dialogue today in a post-Tarantino gangster film world.  Meaning, they aren’t spouting pop culture references with a curse word every other line.  For example, take the following exchange between Dakin and his adversary Matthews that follows the aforementioned “orgasm” line.

Dakin: Don't be a burke all your life. Take a day off, Sergeant.
Matthews: Inspector.
Dakin: Oh it's come through, has it? That's nice. Bit more on your widow's pension.

That last line is such a perfect little bit conveying not only a sly humor, but also a veiled threat.  One of my favorite exchanges is when two thugs waiting for the robbery notice how large the money protectors are.  It goes as follows.

Henry: Big tough lads.
Frank: From the local rugby club.
Henry: Yeah, well they'll be short on Saturday.

One of the biggest knocks on the film is Burton’s overacting and poor attempt at a Cockney accent. Honestly, save one scene, I don’t think Burton is over-the-top at all and displays a cool calm with his icy blue eyes.  As for a Cockney accent, that is out of my territory.  The rest of the cast is excellent with Davenport providing the perfect counterpart as the never frazzled inspector.  McShane, looking like a lost Oasis band member, is good in his role and the film proves my theory that Joss Acklund was never actually young.  Director Michael Tuchner does a good job of capturing seedy London with some great Panavision photography.  He would deliver the awesome FEAR IS THE KEY (1973) right after this one.  If you dig some 1970s crime films, make sure to get yourself a VILLAIN.

Box Office review, June 1971:

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