Lewis Gilbert (director)
BFI Flipside (studio)
20 January 2020 (released)
20 January 2020
This British ‘film noir’ caused somewhat of a furor at the time of its theatrical release back in 1953. It didn't help that the notorious Craig/ Bentley case also took place around the same time. The parallel is only too obvious although here the personas of the protagonists are reversed though by nowadays standards one must wonder what the fuss was all about.
The plot is a relatively simple one: a gang of teenage layabouts (although most are several years older) hang around the bombsites of Hammersmith mugging old ladies. The victims are 'coshed' (bludgeoned) and their handbags are stolen. To think that human beings could stoop so low. Of course these days mugging is almost a daily occurrence, especially in London. The gang is led by one Roy Walsh (played by 23 year old James Kenney, like Melvyn Hayes tipped for stardom - it never happened and he committed suicide in 1987). Roy is basically a psychotic coward without any redeeming qualities. Although it isn't Roy who does the actual ‘coshing’, it is the somewhat simple-minded mummy's boy Alfie Collins (Ian Whittaker). Early on the boys are caught and put on a year's probation - of course, this is no panacea at all (the films begs the question what would in fact be the best panacea then?) Roy just gets worse - robbing his old granny of her savings, raping and impregnating Alfie's sister (a young and quite impressive Joan Collins) after arranging for her decent boyfriend to get beaten up and eventually shooting someone in a wages snatch. He also gives his long-suffering mum Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) a hard time though the truth is she’s way too soft and forgives him all too easily. She’s also rather well spoken (how she gave birth to this little psycho who knows - but Dad is no where in sight). The new man she intends to marry is, if anything, an even bigger joke - Bob Stevens (played by little known American actor Robert Ayres) who is of the opinion that the only way to put a stop to Roy is with a “darn good thrashing”. Indeed, with his leather belt he’ll teach Roy “a lesson he'll remember for the rest of his life”. Fortunately we don't see too much of Bob.
This all sounds like a rather heady mix - but somehow it just doesn't quite come off (in a way like the 1979 drama SCUM does). Lines like “Any argument, and you'll get this across yer kisser, see” as Roy brandishes a cut- throat razor… it just sounds dated and hackneyed. Much of the film depends on Kenney's performance and despite his strong effort it simply fails to convince. It should perhaps be pointed out that Kenney's performance might have been considered to be naturalistic and even chillingly convincing at the time. At THAT time, that is.
For this reviewer the film is saved by a brilliant (and unintentionally) comic performance by Whittaker, complete with an absolutely idiotic whining accent and a number of memorable hilarious lines like “You can't take me down to the police station, me mum says I got to by home by ten o’ clock”. THIS is our actual 'COSH BOY!' Brilliant! For good measure we have the two Hermione's (Baddeley and Gingold) bunged in, strutting their bravura stuff.
As the now nonagenarian Whittaker explains in one of the Bonus Features, COSH BOY is actually based on a successful stage play named 'Master Crook' by Bruce Walker (in which Whittaker had also played the same part). The screenplay was written by director Lewis Gilbert and Vernon Harris. Gilbert himself was a Hackney lad and one can only assume he would have been pretty much at home with working class culture or sub-culture.
The usual plethora of Bonus Features are on offer, including a nice little children's film set in Edinburgh called 'Johnny on the Run' (1952), featuring Gilbert's actual brother-in-law, the ‘legendary’ Sydney Tafler as a spiv.