Simon Rumley (director)
19 April 2019 (released)
Alluding a film to one of the most venerated gangster films of all time is asking for trouble, and Once Upon a Time in London is not anywhere near the ballpark of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. It’s a loaded title that weighs down what on the face of it is a passably interesting story set in a traumatic period of the UK and London’s past.
However most of that goes out the window in this telling of the rivalry between two London gangsters Jack ‘Spot’ Corner (Terry Stone) and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory) vying for control and takes us up to the point when the Krays arrived on the scene.
Opening in 1936 local villain Spot Comer is organising East End Jewish groups against the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. For the pain that Spot inflicts he’s jailed for six months. In another cell Billy Hill is awaiting sentencing though escapes jail through witness intimidation.
From this we are led through their 'careers' as the villains look to displace current incumbents, and then fight amongst themselves over a period of around thirty years for London’s underworld supremacy. It’s a complicated story, with a large cast of characters, with double crosses, racecourse dodges, racketeering and extreme violence all the mix. But murder is avoided as that would mean the death penalty.
On the domestic front both Spot and Billy marry with the latter eventually sharing his affections with both his wife and an escort he falls in love with. The mistreatment of the escort by her pimp leads Billy to carve up his face in an awful scene.
And it’s worth repeating that there’s a lot of violence. Seemingly the only way that these people settled anything was by punching or clobbering anyone who came into range. The introduction of Frankie Fraser (Roland Manookian) and his dart throwing torture method adds an altogether nastier dimension to a film that was already unpleasant.
The performances are ok with no real leading lights. That’s possibly because Simon Rumley (who co-wrote it with Will Gilbey and Terry Stone) doesn’t allow much time to contemplate the events and the twists as the scenes are generally quite short. All credit to him for the authentic look of the film having shot it in and around London.
There’s no whitewash here, this is an ugly story about ugly people with a distorted view on social norms and conventions. Their prime driver, as it is with all criminals, is money. If around that they developed a bizarre code of conduct that gave them the succour of respectability, it was in their minds only.
The fact that during the war they dressed as air raid wardens to steal, and stole ration coupons to sell on the black market should seal these peoples reputations for ever.