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The Criminal (aka The Concrete Jungle) is, for my money at least, one
of Joseph Losey's two best films (the other being King and Country),
but it never really garnered the kind of success or reputation it
deserved, possibly because it had the misfortune to open on the same
day as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which completely overshadowed
it. Billed as 'the most violent film ever made in Britain,' even 45
years on it's still vicious stuff. Indeed, in the entire cast of
characters that populate Alun Owen's excellent and unsentimental
screenplay - irredeemable crooks, vicious prison warders, prison
governors who don't really want to know, amoral molls and assorted
perverts and thugs - the only two people in the entire film who aren't
totally corrupt are Laurence Naismith's arresting officer (who is still
not above letting on about his informants) and the piano tuner who
appears in one brief scene. The plot is a simple enough variation on
Touchez Pas au Grisbi, with Stanley Baker's con pulling off a big job
and immediately being ratted out by one of his partners who wants a
bigger share, but the stark execution and background is what carries
it. Certainly its vision of the British prison system as a Hellish
melting pot of refuse of all persuasions - Irish, Australian, Italians,
West Indians, the mentally disturbed - where the guards don't only turn
a blind eye to vicious beatings but even facilitate them is a kick in
the groin to the more sedate cop movies of the day.
It's also full of memorable little moments, from the prison weasel spreading the news of an informant's return in-between lines of Knick Knack Paddywhack to Kenneth J. Warren's inability to say anything without incorporating the word 'loike.' Robert Krasker's black and white cinematography has more bite to it than most of its contemporaries, from the hard stark edges of the prison scenes to the bleak half-snowscape of the haunting final shots, while Johnny Dankworth's score makes great use of Cleo Laine's mournful prison balled ("All my loving, all my joy/Came from loving a thieving boy"]). The supporting cast is impressive, offering a virtual who's who of perfectly cast 60s British character actors, including many faces that would later memorably turn up among the ranks in Baker's Zulu). Unlike the wave of British gangster flicks to litter the straight-to-video shelves post-Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this feels like the real thing rather than a bunch of nicely brought up middle class kids playing dress-up. For some curious reason Anchor Bay's otherwise excellent transfer omits the end credits, played over a melancholy shot of prisoners walking in circles in a stark and wintery exercise yard.
Joseph Losey does a superb job of directing cinema-verite'-style from start to finish. From the moment Cleo Laine sings Thieving Boy over the opening credits, I knew I was in for a special experience. Stanley Baker spent a career delivering some of the most haunting criminal characterizations of all time, and this is one of his all-time best. Patrick Magee is memorable in a minor supporting role. An incredible gritty film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Joseph Losey's C.V. was nothing if not eclectic.Once considered by some critics as a major force in British Cinema,he can,with hindsight ,be seen to have been following trends rather than creating them for most of his career.Nonetheless,his films were,as a rule,recognisably the work of a considerable artist,albeit one working within the limits imposed by the studios,and within clearly defined genres. He was involved in film-making for 45 years,right up to his death in 1984. Blacklisted by the H.U.A.C.,Mr Losey brought a welcome dash of verve and inmagination to a fairly moribund British Film Industry. He could take a straightforward prison movie like "The Criminal" - destined to be a pot-boiler in the hands of many an English hack director - and turn it into a rather remarkable work. The British cannot do crime films.I know we think we can,and we certainly make enough of them,but the results give lie to the proverb that practise makes perfect.It's not enough to fill the screen with snarling professional Cockneys with tattooed fingers like bunches of sausages spouting rhyming - slang never heard outside of a script writer's study in Islington.Watch Britpop gangster films like"Lock,stock etc" or "Essex Boys" and you can scarcely hear the dialogue for laughter and the more ludicrously violent the film gets the more the audience laughs."The Criminal" is not noticeably risible. There is violence,but it is not comic book violence,it is the sort of violence that leaves it's victims scarred physically and mentally. There is real menace.Mr Stanley Baker and Mr Sam Wanamaker are hard men. Compared to them Mr Sean Bean is a pussycat,Mr Vinnie Jones a dilettante. It is not so much a film noir as a film gris,the exteriors shot in bright light,softening the contrast whilst retaining pin-sharp focusing.These shadings of grey reflect the moral ambivalence of the main characters.Only the truly unpleasant P.O. Barrow,played with hissing relish by Mr Patrick Magee,is shot in high contrast. Mr Stanley Baker is very convincing as a major criminal,hardly surprising when you consider he had been known to move in the same social circles as some of London's biggest villains.He makes no unnecessary gestures,remains aloof from his fellow prisoners,truly a man apart.You just know he won't be taking up those courses in basket weaving. The plot - such as it is - revolves around a "Thieves fall out" scenario familiar to moviegoers since the first train robber galloped across the flickering screen.It's familiarity doesn't matter,its what Mr Losey does with it that counts,after all,"Romeo and Juliet" wasn't exactly state of the art cutting edge audience challenging stuff when Shakespeare first got hold of it. Released at a time when British films were just about to enjoy a short - lived renaissance,"The Criminal" ended up being trampled under the feet of critics lavishing excessive praise on a succession of flat cap and whippet sagas that eventually disappeared up their own outdoor privy. Viewed at a distance of 45 years,Mr Wanamaker crossing the street in his camelhair coat is an image that will remain long after the last crumpled Woodbine is ground out in an overflowing ashtray in a smoke - filled changing room before the poor exploited hero runs out - coughing to play football/rugby league/pigeon racing in front of an audience of seven men and a dog - probably a whippet.
Stanley Baker's dodgy Irish accent strikes the only false note in Joseph Losey's hard-nosed crime drama. A lethal combination of charm, guile and brute force makes jailbird Johnny Bannion the top dog in B block. Once he's released, Bannion is plunged straight back into a world of free-flowing booze, casual sex and cool jazz in his well-appointed bachelor pad. But there's no thought of going straight as he plots a lucrative racetrack heist with the reptilian Carter (Sam Wanamaker). The intrigue here lies not in the heist itself but in the web of betrayals that follow, as Losey and screenwriter Alun Owen build an authentic portrait of the criminal underworld on both sides of the prison wall. There's no hint here of the cartoonish Swinging London and stereotypical cockney villains that continue to plague British cinema. Robert Krasker's photography lends a stark beauty to the pollarded trees in the prison courtyard and Johnny Dankworth's score, punctuated by a mournful Cleo Laine ballad, is superb. With its harsh, sweaty depiction of prison violence, this is a million miles from the upper-class shenanigans depicted in the director's later films like The Servant and The Go-Between.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A strange film.
On the one hand it is a realistically drawn Melvillean study of criminals who fall out and destroy one another; on the other it is a non-naturalistic Behanesque portrayal of prison life, its hierarchies and the relationships among and between warders and prisoners. At a guess, the crime story dominated in the original script and Alun Owen emphasised the prison scenes and introduced the element of ensemble work in the later version. The problem with this mixture of films, either of which could be good on its own, is that they don't fit together- that's leaving aside the film's Dickensian relish for characters, regardless of their relevance to the story. Thus the comic Northerner who wants to hire the gang's getaway taxi after the robbery, the piano-tuner in Bannion's flat (what does Bannion want a piano for anyway?- it's isn't consistent with his character.) when they are talking plans for the robbery, many of the prisoners- effectively portrayed as helplessly institutionalised, Magee's talismanic and enigmatic head warder, the prison doctor, the cynical prison governor- all distract from the film's plot, but aren't given enough time for their own story, which might be more interesting- the mixture of antagonism and co-operation between prison staff and prisoners- "Come on" says a screw, "I always treat you straight; you do the same for me." an effective tactic- is well-portrayed and rouses our interest without satisfying it. Equally, important parts of the crime story are thrown away- we never see the robbery and Bannion goes back to prison remarkably quickly- six weeks, we are told- we never even learn how long he will spend back in prison. The women- the abandoned moll played by Jill Bennett and her replacement- aren't convincing at all, mere plot-devices; on the other hand, the suggestion that some of the characters are homosexual is well-placed and carefully shown in passing. There are strengths too- effective and sometimes beautiful camera-work, especially in the prison scenes, all of the actors are good in their parts, a very fine score by John Dankworth. It's certainly a film worth seeing, but we can't help regretting what it could be but isn't- but then, that's true of so many British films.
Stanley Baker is convincing as a brutal villain, but it looked to me that he could easily have been nobbled by several of his prison inmates. There's a lot of talk that attempts to sew the plot together, but not a lot of action - and I don't mean fights and car chases, I mean the difference between taking the audience on a cinematic journey as opposed to being told what's happening by the dialogue. There's too much telling and not enough showing. Several of the set-pieces in this essentially crime/gangster genre story are clumsily handled. The robbery is poorly covered: we don't know what the plan is, or what the perpetrators are up against, plus several opportunities for high tension are muffed. In the prison, the conflicts are fairly well developed and realised, but often they're stagey or overwrought. Gregoire Aslan is an excellent 'capo' and there is some good character work by the supporting cast, but there is also some woeful acting. The general statement of this film is that this is a grim, bleak, violent society in which ordinary man is always imprisoned - that part works, but as a drama or a thriller it's clunky and uneven. An under-developed script, some patchy, but energetic direction, and a generally excellent job of anamorphic lensing by Aussie Robert Krasker.
When I was in Hollywood late last year, I managed to watch Losey's
classic sci-fi THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963) - surely Hammer Films'
strangest release; at the time, while I had been sufficiently impressed
with the film (despite the poor quality of the print I came across but,
at least, it was the full-length version!), I had also found the
experience somewhat overwhelming.
I couldn't quite explain why I felt this way but, having now watched this contemporaneous title (which, in comparison to the fanciful apocalyptic narrative of THESE ARE THE DAMNED, is a relatively straightforward crime drama of the prison/caper variety), I realized that it was due to the essential stylization of Losey's mise-en-scene which, apart from giving a heightened sense of reality to the already intense proceedings, also rendered the film guilty of a certain pretentiousness (marking virtually every scene) not found in similar genre efforts, certainly British-made - demonstrating a definite change of attitude in cinema towards a greater sense of artistry but also more lenient censorship (the sex and violence in this particular film, while not especially graphic by the standards of even a few years later, are clearly more pronounced than in the previous decade)! Still, to be honest, all of this actually serves to make the film doubly arresting - particularly during this gritty phase of Losey's career (his statelier later work grew increasingly more opaque).
What a cast! Stanley Baker was never better than as the almost legendary con whose individuality makes him an outcast even among his own kind, and he's surrounded by some very fine actors - most notably Sam Wanamaker (as his contact on the outside but who harbors ambitions of taking over the gang), Patrick Magee (his first impressive role as a corrupt and menacing prison warden), Gregoire Aslan (as the ageing mobster who rules the underworld even from inside the penitentiary and to whom everyone - Baker included - must acquiesce) and Nigel Green (as Baker's double-crossing associate). Surprisingly, the supporting cast is peppered with faces familiar from several horror films like Rupert Davies (WITCHFINDER GENERAL ), Edward Judd (THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE ), Murray Melvin (THE DEVILS ), John Van Eyssen (HORROR OF Dracula ), Noel Willman (THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE ), Kenneth J. Warren (THE CREEPING FLESH ) and Patrick Wymark (THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW ).
Speaking of which, Hammer Films stalwart Jimmy Sangster reportedly contributed to the excellent screenplay (actually credited to A HARD DAY'S NIGHT  scribe Alun Owen!). The film's remarkable and claustrophobic black-and-white cinematography is by the great Robert Krasker (Oscar winner for THE THIRD MAN ). Another big plus is Johnny Dankworth's jazzy score, featuring a recurring ballad sung by Cleo Laine.
While essentially character-driven, the film's seedy milieu and sadistic streak allows for a number of vivid sequences (though the race-track robbery itself is rather thrown away!) including the wild party held at Baker's flat on being released from prison (highlighting sexy Margit Saad who subsequently replaces Jill Bennett as Baker's moll), the equally chaotic prison riot, Baker's escape from the penitentiary (having been betrayed after the robbery and recaptured) and the inevitable showdown with the ruthless Wanamaker.
Unfortunately, apart from the theatrical trailer and admittedly extensive talent bios for both Losey and Baker, the Anchor Bay DVD is a bare-bones affair; pity neither of them is around anymore (Baker died far too young in 1976 at age 49 and Losey, already in his 50s when the film was made, followed him in 1984) to have been involved in this otherwise sparkling edition!
Having watched THE CRIMINAL and, more recently, Losey's SECRET CEREMONY (1968), I've rekindled my interest in this important director's work: I have four of his films as yet unwatched on VHS - THE BIG NIGHT (1951), THE ROMANTIC ENGLISHWOMAN (1975), DON GIOVANNI (1979) and LA TRUITE (1982) - and still need to pick up several of them on DVD - EVE (1962; unwatched...if I can find a copy of the Kino disc which includes two different cuts of the film, neither of them the complete 155-minute version!), THE SERVANT (1963), KING AND COUNTRY (1964; unwatched), MODESTY BLAISE (1966), ACCIDENT (1967), the upcoming THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY (1972; unwatched) and GALILEO (1975; unwatched).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Shrewd, fearsome underworld kingpin Johnny Bannion (a superbly steely and convincing performance by Stanley Baker) gets sprung from the joint so he can mastermind a bold racetrack heist for his slick, shifty hoodlum buddy Mike Carter (a splendidly smarmy Sam Wanamaker). Johnny winds up being incarcerated again after hiding the stolen loot. Can he survive long enough in jail to get back out and retrieve the money? Director Joseph Losey, working from a sharp, precise script written by Alun Owen and Jimmy Sangster, offers a fascinatingly vivid and flavorsome depiction of the seedy criminal milieu, relates the arresting story at a steady pace, and maintains a fierce, unrelenting intensity that never lets up to the literal bitter end. This film further benefits from top-notch acting by a stellar cast, with especially stand-out turns from Baker, Wanamaker, Gregoire Aslan as cunning Italian mop capo Frank Saffron, Margit Saad as Johnny's brash, enticing new girlfriend Suzanne, Jill Bennett as neurotic spurned moll Maggie, Patrick Magee as rugged, no-nonsense prison guard captain Barrows, Laurence Naismith as meddlesome detective Mr. Town, and Kenneth J. Warren as the brutish Clobber. Robert Krasker's crisp, fluid black and white cinematography, the colorful characters, John Dankworth's rousing jazzy score, the uncompromisingly grim'n'gritty tone, the haunting bluesy theme song that's gorgeously sung by Cleo Laine, a potent central message about how greed and money lust destroy the human soul, and the powerful downbeat ending add immensely to the considerable jolting impact of this bang-up little winner.
The blacklisted Joseph Losey whose loss to the American cinema was the
United Kingdom's gain took his knowledge of American prison films to
fashion this gem. Starring in Concrete Jungle is the premier British
tough guy Stanley Baker in a role that in America, Humphrey Bogart
might have been given first crack at.
Whoever said there was no honor among thieves must have run with Baker's mob. When we meet him, he's a day away from his release from one jail sentence, but not until some prison justice is meted out to a newly arriving Patrick Magee with whom Baker has a grudge over a previous job.
No sooner is Baker out than he's back in a nice caper concerning the robbery of a racetrack. But thieves being what they are somebody rats and Baker's back in stir. But not before he's buried the loot and doesn't tell anyone, the same thing he was mad at Magee for.
It's a scurvy lot Baker has for friends, I haven't seen this many bad people hold a viewer's interest without there being any redeeming good people in a film since I first saw Goodfellas. But like Goodfellas there is something fascinating about Baker and the whole crew, people like Sam Wanamaker, Gregoire Aslan, etc. Even the cops like Laurence Naismith aren't especially heroic. Naismith admits as much, he's just got a well developed system of stool pigeons which any cop worth his badge has.
Baker really dominates the film, the United Kingdom hasn't produced an actor like him since. Concrete Jungle is a classic example of his tough guy appeal and a great introduction to him.
And you'll love Cleo Laine's singing of A Thieving Boy at the beginning and end of the film.
A haunting and unique depiction of prison and criminal life in Britain in the early 1960s. 40 years after its release I still wish to see this film. Before the Great Train Robbery and the prison riots of more recent times the violence and tension portrayed in the work seem to strike a very deep chord which anticipates these later events.
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