Concrete Jungle (1960)
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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.
Johnny Bannion (Baker) is an ex-con who's taken part in the robbery of a racetrack but is caught and sent back to prison; but not before he has time to bury the cash from the gig. Back in prison Johnny is keeping the cards close to his chest but finds there are big crime forces wanting a piece of his action. With plans afoot to "twist" his arm, and his girlfriend kidnapped, Johnny knows something is going to have to give...
All my sadness and all my joy, comes from loving a thieving boy.
Once tagged as being "The toughest picture ever made in Britain", The Criminal obviously seems tame by today's increasingly over the top standards. Yet it still packs quite a punch and shows the very best of Messrs Losey, Baker and Krasker.
In some ways it's a strange film, the pace is purposely slow and the narrative is bolstered by bouts of hang wringing tension, where periods of calm come laced with a grim oppressive atmosphere, but there's often electricity bristling in the air when Bannion (Baker is magnetic and brilliant as he apparently models the character on Albert Dimes) is holding court. Even when on the outside and feeling the love of a good woman, Bannion exudes a loner like danger, he's tough but being a hard bastard can't break him free from the shackles of his life. We know it and you sense that he himself knows it, and it gives the film an exciting edge not befitting the downbeat tone of the story. Characters here have not been delivered from happy land, you will struggle to find someone here who isn't nasty of heart, bad in the head or simply foolish. Inside this concrete jungle it's a multi cultural hive of emotional disintegration, and at the core stirring the honey pot is one Johnny Bannion. The film makers here are all about pessimism, self-destruction and the battle against the system and the underworld, right up to (and including) a finale fit to grace the best noirs of the 40s.
Losey and Krasker ensure the prison sequences are stifling, the walls close in, the bars and netting are unsettling and close ups of the odd ball assortment of crims and warders strike an incarcerated chord, visually it's an impressive piece of noirish film. But it's not just about shadows and filtered light, the director has skills aplenty with his camera. A kaleidoscope shot has a delightfully off kilter kink to it, while his overhead filming and pull away crane usage for the frosty cold finale is as memorable as it is skillful in selection. Musically the pic begins and ends with the soulful warbling of Cleo Laine, the tune is a Prison Ballad (Thieving Boy), and it's tonally perfect, while Dankworth and his orchestra provide jazz shards that thrust in and out of the story like knowing accomplices to fate unfolding. Set design is superb, especially for the recreation of a Victorian prison which is impressive and makes it easy to not lament an actual prison location used, while the supporting actors are very strong, particularly Magee (Zulu) who excels doing sneaky menace as Warder Barrows.
Flaws? Not any if you don't actually expect the toughest film made in Britain back in the day (though it was banned in some countries!). I do wonder why Baker had to be an Irish character and not just be Welsh and therefore do his natural Welsh accent? And if we are are being over critical we could suggest there are some prison stereotypes that even by 1960 were looking frayed around the edges. But ultimately this is tough stuff, a gritty and moody piece of cinema with class on either side of the camera. 8/10
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).
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.
But the film is actually pretty exciting, and most of the credits go to Stanley Baker, who plays Johnny Bannion with an intense style that would become more common in the seventies. Always cheeky, willing to play the highest game, independent. Baker was known having friends in London's underworld. One scene in particular makes him a badass: two gangsters come into his cell with the purpose to rig him but it's Bannion who beats them up. Bannion probably would have lead a Colombian cocaine mafia empire just fine if he had been born a little later.
The Criminal is not everyone's cup of tea because of its script, but is definitely a great watch if you like realistic, vicious atmospheres in movies. The jazz music by John Dankworth reinforces the chaotic atmosphere brilliantly.
At first, Johnny Bannion seems to be top dog among the prisoners. He can withdraw a beating or arrange one, and has hangers-on at his beck and call. When he gets out he has already planned the mythical 'big score' that will put him in Easy Street for a good, long while.
Unfortunately, the criminal system is as skewed as the capitalist one when it comes to exploitation. Mr Bigs have to be fixed - and double the rate they charge for their trouble (you have to deal with them or you can't do business at all). They are ruthless, kidnapping and threatening women to get their way. Eventually they will take everything you have, including your life, to get what they want. And don't expect any justice or comeback from the authorities. They are in on the game, too, and play their own part in keeping things jogging along as long as there isn't too much rough stuff (even the liberal New Statesman-reading prison governor seems wearily aware there can be no rehabilitation or true justice in the world).
By the end of the film Bannion has been bought and sold half-a-dozen times by those he felt he could trust. There is no room for his kind any more, corporate criminality has taken over.
We are left with too many loose ends to make a wholly satisfying story. Does Pauly Larkin pull through? Why was Maggie dumped? There are also tantalising hints at a more sensitive side to Bannion (love of music with the piano and record covers in his apartment, the stifled crossing of himself when he hears of a death) which are never explored.
This is a tough film and very worth watching. It just leaves too many unanswered questions.
Admittedly, I lost some of the British dialogue because of my American ears. Nonetheless, there's a one-note monotony to the visuals, the characters, and the storyline-- no one can be trusted, life is grim, and the visuals rub our nose in the ugliness. Still, the movie is titled Concrete Jungle, not Concrete Vacation, so as far as the marquee is concerned, there is 'truth in packaging'. Nonetheless, there's little suspense or tension in the screenplay, an odd outcome for a crime drama. Events simply follow on one another without much structural development.
Why the robbery itself is passed over is puzzling since that would have provided needed suspense. My guess is that a detailed depiction would have followed too closely on the heels of Kubrick's superb racetrack robbery in The Killing (1956). But, whatever the reason, both the crime and the aftermath are dealt with in unimaginative fashion.
Losey does keep things moving in fast-paced style, while Wanamaker's slippery gangster represents an interesting character. Nonetheless, the result lacks the compelling social ambiguities of his better American films. All in all, I agree with reviewer BOUF—the result is "clunky and uneven", with an "under-developed script". Considering the source, I expected better.
Secondly, they are irritatingly self-regarding and self-conscious. One gets the constant impression that Losey is permanently saying: Look at me, and what I'm doing. I'm a serious, committed, self-confessed Communist and Stalinist (he actually maintained this attitude for a time), and all you precious intellectuals out there owe it to yourselves to admire and respect me. Sorry, Joe, I'm just not with you on that one. Moreover, although this turgid film includes what amounts to a near-comprehensive roll-call of English character actors, I simply do not respond to the thespian qualities of Losey's frequently employed leads, such as Baker and Bogarde. Baker may have a slight edge over Bogarde, but I wouldn't want to meet either of them.
In the end these films are not entertaining, and their messages are painfully dated. If they ever conveyed anything constructive at all, it was only for a short period, post-war and pre-rock n' roll: 1945-1955. True art is gripping and timeless.
Two out of ten stars. What has gone wrong with the star system?