The Deadly Gent: British Crime Films of 1970-1972

If ever you had either the desire, the opportunity or the patience to leaf through a filmmaker’s compiled logbooks, papers or journals, then 9 out of 10 times when discussing hurdles or adversities they will probably mention financing and distribution. These two necessary evils of the creative process have quite literally had the last word in making or breaking a film, and many talented filmmakers have had to facilitate savvy methods in which to navigate around them. 

By the end of the 1960’s, as the cinema world was ticking over into a new decade, a dark and ominous cloud had already began to settle over the English Channel. The Hollywood studios that had once financed and co-produced much of these pictures the decade prior were now pulling the plug on investment; hindering the growth of British cinema both locally and globally.

Additionally, government funding (of which 1/5 of all British films had relied upon the decade before) was fast drying up, as the state-backed National Film Finance Corporation came under renewed pressure to tighten it’s purse strings. And as the U.S studios struggled to find a commercial platform for these films, numbers at the box-office too were in sharp decline… as the popularity of spy movies and musicals began to wane, and once en vogue  British actors like Sean Connery and Richard Burton were now returning en masse from Hollywood, in the hope of landing roles closer to home.

But these tempestuous winds just so happened to be the ideal climate for a new kind of antihero to emerge from the shadows of the cobblestoned mews and back alleys of British subculture. In the 1970‘s, cinema’s hoodlum was to receive a thorough makeover; and from this backdrop the deadly gent was born.

Reckless… volatile… remorseless. Cinema’s new gangster certainly possessed characteristics that were equally captivating and repulsive to boot. Here was a crime figure that stood out head-and-shoulders in your stereotype line-up of usual suspects. Sharply-dressed and short-fused, the deadly gent had a penchant for a quick quid and an even speedier lifestyle. When their fists weren’t doing the talking for them, these slick-haired stand over men usually spoke in Cockney slang and wielded fearsome reputations amongst the seedy underworlds of which they were notoriously active. At times too they could even be satirical; a parody or homage (whichever way you look at it) to the trench coated ‘private dick’ characters of Hollywood’s noir era.

A spike in popularity of gritty 70‘s Hollywood crime thrillers, like The French Connection, Dirty Harry and The Anderson Tapes, as well as with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge in France suggests the shifting appetite of a new cinema audience around this time. Notwithstanding, due to the graphic (and vastly immoderate) nature of scenes depicting violence, sex, nudity and drug use in much of these films, problems with censorship and distribution were all too imminent; and a good number of these early British crime films suffered as a result of their restricted trajectory. Films were dubbed over entirely with American voice actors or even shelved in some instances, because the Hollywood studios that helped finance them were unsure how (or if) commercial audiences would take to them.

The characteristics of the deadly gent stem from the roots of British television and theatre, from which many of the screenwriters, producers and directors primarily derived. They drew inspiration from newsreels and current affairs closer to home to forge their own interpretation of the career criminal; and from the pages of the hardboiled novels that were so instrumental in shaping the Hollywood gangster of the golden era. The British crime film of the early 1970‘s was also the arena in which such filmmakers as Mike Hodges (Pulp, The Terminal Man, Croupier), Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) and Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth) would first get the opportunity to cut their teeth.

Much of the gritty, freewheeling cinematic style of this period was a nod to the voyeuristic Cinéma vérité movement that grew to prominence in Europe in the 1960’s. Being that the majority of these films were either shot on location, using bystanders as extras, or casting real-life ex-cons in minor roles, their bold stories still possess a commanding sense of street credibility; serving as worthy time capsules of another era… a greasy window into a city that seems to be forever deconstructing and reassembling itself over and over again.

This month, Privilege of Legends tapes off the crime scene and dusts the creative fingerprints around six important British crime films that were released in the short period between 1970-1972.

Performance – 1970 (Goodtimes Enterprises)

‘I need a bohemian atmosphere! I’m an artist, Mr. Turner. Like yourself…’

Riding on the wave of box-office success from The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, Warner Brothers were hoping to cash in on the public’s burgeoning rockstar infatuation with a similar picture, starring The Rolling Stones. In actuality, what the Hollywood studios were to receive in 1968, was in contrast so utterly repulsive that it quite literally made them want to throw up. Executives were left wondering how such a film had been produced in entirety without it’s explicit scenes of violence, casual drug use, nudity and sex not coming under the attention of it’s commercial regulatory body.

Performance 2
The film’s original scripted title was The Liars, which they changed to The Performers, and eventually Performance.

But if any heads demanded rolling, was it not the film executives that should have been held accountable, as opposed to the actual filmmakers themselves? After all, screenwriter/director Donald Cammell and maverick cinematographer Nicholas Roeg had been allowed to go about their business mostly unfettered; producing the film in large part with little-to-no interference on set. In any event, the final product was more sex, drugs and rock and roll than Hollywood had anticipated; and subsequently Performance was shelved for the next two years, denying it altogether of any chance of success at the box-office. The film’s production was plagued too with industry rumours, urban legends and on-set scandals that have in some way helped it to achieve cult status in more recent years, with the British Film Institute voting it as the 48th greatest British film of all time.

The strength of Performance lies mostly in it’s effortless ability to balance elements of the preordained with the impromptu. Cammell and Roeg worked closely together to develop a layered aesthetic to the film; too raw and awkwardly-shaped for the narrow conformity of the genre pigeonhole. If anything, Performance offers a kaleidoscopic view into the liberal excesses of the swinging 60‘s, with equal doses of stylised cinematography and experimental filmmaking incorporated into the melting pot of work.

When concerning plot however, Performance is also boldly straight-shooting and simplistic in it’s nature: In an effort to avoid any unwanted heat around the scene of his more recent felony, East London mobster, Chas (played by the wickedly likeable James Fox), takes up temporary board in the suburban residency of a reclusive musician (none other than rocker Mick Jagger, in his glorious onscreen debut).

Here the cinematography of a young Nicholas Roeg stands out like a tie-dyed t-shirt; with its unorthodox camerawork, framing and juxtaposed imagery. Its shrewdly disorienting use of cutaway shots and contradictory scenes (romance/violence, law courts/crime scenes) lace the film with an intoxicating, freewheeling rhythm that could only have been birthed in such a cataclysmic era of change and social revolution.

Perfect Friday – 1970 (Sunnymede Film Productions)

‘What I like about Perfect Friday is that everybody lies to each other and everybody believes each other’s lies…’

-Stanley Baker

When floundering aristocrat, Lord Dorset, played by David Warner (Twin Peaks, The Omen, Straw Dogs), and his frivolously spending partner, Lady Britt Dorset (the stunning Ursula Andress) hatch a scheme for an inside job with humdrum bank manager, Mr. Graham (played by film producer and actor Stanley Baker) to raid the company vault and divide the spoils, the three foolhardy opportunists become embroiled in a game of fabricated fibs and falsehood, as they each lay in waiting for the ‘perfect Friday’ from which to make their audacious move.

Perfect Friday 3
Stanley Baker and Ursula Andress go over the plan in Perfect Friday.

One of the runaway triumphs of the heist film is it’s seamless ability to keep us all invested, despite knowing ultimately where such a plot is heading, and in many respects Perfect Friday is no exception. A playful caper film that never at any point attempts to take itself too seriously; British film and television actor/screenwriter, C. Scott Forbes’ clever script manages to maintain it’s footing without any creative bumps or bruises for the duration of the ride. It’s no surprise too that the film’s director, Sir Peter Hall also happened to be a tour de force in the world of British opera and theatre.

‘Mr. Hall has made an intelligent and quietly funny film about three eccentrics, who are as attractively written as they are played.’

-Gene Siskel for the New York Times

In a sentence, Perfect Friday is 94 minutes of safe-cracking, double-crossing, bed-hopping antics; in which the only thing greater than each of the character’s insatiable greed is their compulsive propensity to deceive one another.

When asked about the flippant nudity and sex scenes peppered throughout the film, Hall stated that these were intended as a send-up:

‘..of all those sex films that steam up the West End’.

Get Carter – 1971 (MGM-British Studios)

‘Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine…’

-Michael Caine

Carter has taken the journey up north from London to visit a relative. A nice idea in theory, you may be thinking. Well, sure…. that is of course if they were still living.

Often cited as one of the greatest British gangster films of all time, former playwright Mike Hodges’ first feature film was adapted from his own screenplay and licensed by MGM prior to it closing it’s Borehamwood studio and drastically scaling back it’s investment in British cinema. Hodges resisted any insistence from the studios to cast a major Hollywood star in the film, placing a young Michael Caine in the major role of Cockney gangster Jack Carter.

Get Carter -BTS
‘You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself!’

Carter handles situations with a sharp tongue, a reckless sense of nihilism, and a 12-gauge shotgun… the sawn-off weapon he brandishes symbolic to the double-barrelled nature of the protagonist (loyal brother/remorseless killer). Caine plays this character with a restrained debonair; an almost unexaggerated economy that makes the drama all the more satisfying when Carter finally erupts into a fit of violent rage

‘One of the reasons I wanted to make that picture was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters aren’t stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny’.

-Michael Caine

With a pessimistic sense of fatalism woven into the fabric of the plot there are strong elements of neo-noir here. But Get Carter’s location shooting around Newcastle upon Tyne, and it’s use of locals and bystanders as extras bolsters the film with another  element of realism and authenticity– due in part to Hodges‘ background in making documentaries, and Caine’s desire to play the role of Carter with subtlety and humility (Caine invested heavily in the picture, signing on as uncredited co-producer).

Get Carter mostly suffered upon it’s release, a combination of poor promotion by the studios and relatively dismal numbers at the box office due to the economic slump in the industry closer to home. Critical reaction to the film too was mixed, some praised the cinematic style of Hodges’ work, whilst others found the remorseless actions of the protagonist too unsettling for their liking. Hollywood’s inability to market such a film also meant that Get Carter didn’t see a home media release until over twenty years later.

Perhaps the greatest irony was that Warner Brothers’ 2000 Hollywood remake was a commercial failure, and Get Carter has since affirmed it’s status with critics as one of the greatest British films ever made.

Villain – 1971 (MGM-EMI)

‘It is a racy sadistic London piece about cops and robbers; the kind of ‘bang-bang, calling all cars’ stuff that I’ve always wanted to do and never have…’

-Richard Burton

Based on James Barlow’s novel Burden of Proof, it may come as no surprise that the script for Villain was reworked for the big screen by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, a pair of established writers for BBC television. What is startling on the other hand, is that Clement and La Fresnais were both predominantly script writers for a string of comedic sitcoms; a far cry from a sadistically violent and gritty crime thriller such as this one.

The financial failure of Villain ultimately signalled the end of Burton’s career as a box-office star.

In truth, the screenwriting duo had already obtained the flat-pack pieces for this authentic crime story, courtesy of a treatment written by Hollywood tough-guy and organised crime figure Al Lettieri (who was to receive notoriety for his roles in The Godfather and The Getaway). Villain was also director Michael Tuchner’s debut film, having made the recent transitioning also from British television and theatre.

The antagonistic villain from which the film is centred around is East London hoodlum Vic Dakin: a volatile sociopath and mummy’s boy with a dangerous tendency for senseless brutality and aggression. Although actor Richard Burton claims to have been coaxed into taking on the role through what he described as ‘great American conmanship’, he eventually jumped at the opportunity of playing the villain; even agreeing to make the film for no salary, in exchange for a larger percentage of profit revenue.

‘I usually play kings or princes or types like that… I’ve never really played a villain.’

-Richard Burton

Burton had always admired the work of Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney for their onscreen roles as the archetypal gangster; and much of the character traits of Vic Dakin draw an uncanny resemblance from the latter, in his devilishly sinful portrayal of Cody Jarrett in the 1949 noir crime classic White Heat. But the film’s producers were unwavering in their decision to keep Villain’s frightful antagonist British, and much of Dakin’s characteristics were channelled from London underworld figures of the era, like the notorious Kray twins of Bethnal Green.

Shot on location in the streets of East London by longtime British cinematographer Christopher Challis, Villain is a sadistically pleasurable shoot-em-up with disturbing psychological undertones. The finished product ultimately suffered however, with large portions of the dialogue dubbed for American audiences, and minor but mostly mixed reception from both local and international audiences. For such a raw and exhilarating 70‘s British crime film, it’s a shame that Villain is all too often unmentioned or absent within critical discussions.

Gumshoe – 1971 (Memorial Enterprises)

‘I saw you fill that billiard ball so full of junk he rolled into the pocket and stayed there…’

Although Eddie Ginley works the various Liverpool bingo halls, comedy clubs and local dives, he is overcome with the seemingly delusional aspiration of one day becoming a private investigator, like his heroes in the pulp novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Ginley’s world of make-believe becomes a hard-boiled reality when he places an advertisement in the local paper, offering his services as a private eye for hire.

Gumshoe was the 2nd film produced by Finney’s production company Memorial Enterprises.

Stephen Frears’ first feature film is everything a comic satirical spoof should be, and more. But under the microscope, Gumshoe is far more detailed and intricate than one might have noticed at first glance. With a ridiculously clever script written by British author Neville Smith (who appears in the film as Arthur), Gumshoe casually intermingles elements of slapstick with the sombre; an homage to, as well as a parody of the private detective characters of pulp fiction. It’s conversations between characters ricochet hard and fast, like a schoolyard handball game, and it’s plot line traces the familiar paths that Phillip Marlowe or Mike Hammer may have treaded… though on second thoughts, perhaps not quite (isn’t this all taking place in Liverpool, after all?).

The late great Albert Finney is particularly excellent here as Ginley: dangerously out of his depths, but mostly unperturbed by the tight jam he has found himself in. Donning a trench coat and obsessing over troublesome dames (namely his sister-in-law), Finney welcomes with open arms the fatalistic destiny of his former fictional idols. Next to his pistol that he keeps with him at all times he carries a copy of Hammett’s The Thin Manof which he has read from cover to cover at least six times already. Gumshoe was also the first of only two films that Andrew Lloyd Webber would compose original music scores for.

Sitting Target – 1972 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

‘The spirit is weak, Harry… flesh even weaker.’

After a mildly favourable response from the aforementioned crime films, Get Carter and Villain one year prior, MGM had hired screenwriter Alexander Jacobs to work on the script for what would be another hard-hitting gritty crime thriller filmed on the streets of Britain, and inside a notorious abandoned prison on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland. Jacobs had already proven his worth with the script for the gutsy American crime film Point Blank in 1967, and the studios eventually recruited the dexterous Douglas Hickox to direct the film; after making his first full-length picture in 1970, beginning an illustrious career that saw him direct everything from musicals and camp horrors, to high-paced action and thrillers.

Sitting Target 3
An evil and vengeful Oliver Reed in Sitting Target.

Sitting Target stands out among this list in particular for it’s many depictions of callous violence that shocked audiences at the time, and still manages to creep it’s way under the hardened skin of even the most desensitised crime buff that happens to track it down. The final picture was also stamped with the largely undesirable accolade of being one of the first local films to be given the ‘X’ certificate rating, for it’s many graphic scenes of brutal and senseless violence.

Oliver Reed stakes his claim here for one of the most brutish of onscreen thugs, playing the heavily armed and dangerous escaped convict Harry Lomart, on the run with petty criminal Birdy Williams (played here by a young, shaggy-haired Ian McShane). Reed is taciturn and tight-lipped, and all-the-more terrifying when he flies off the handle, (spoiler alert) of which he seems to do regularly and most often.

Sitting Target satisfies a guilt-ridden itch for semi-automatic weapons, tense action, and daring car chase scenes, but it’s story does seem rigid and rather wooden in parts… hobbling at times from scene to scene with a cumbersome lack of nimbleness. That being said, this not often talked about 70‘s British thriller is still worth a revisit if you like your crime films hard and rough around the edges.

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