Joseph Losey (director)
16 September 2019 (released)
16 September 2019
In the case of Joseph Losey, who directed this then highly controversial 1960 prison drama, it can certainly be said Hollywood's loss was Britain's gain! We can hardly go wrong with a young Stanley Baker in the lead - few actors at the time would have been capable of giving a more vigorous performance than Baker.
The word ‘vigorous’ itself is virtually synonymous with the Welsh firebrand's style. Baker is Johnny Bannion - the prison 'Daddy' and criminal mastermind. At the beginning we are given a pretty good idea of prison life (in the late 50's or early 60's that is)… a ‘dog eat dog’ world where only the fittest truly survive unscathed. Bannion knows the ropes only too well and he is due to be released soon. Being an out and out criminal with a capital C there is no question of redemption with our Johnny. His somewhat dim-witted cellmate Snipe (John Molloy) has put him onto a sure fire ‘coup’ when he gets out. Johnny is met at the prison gate by an old compatriot - the slimy Mike Carter (Sam Wanamaker), who has insincerity oozing out of every pore and is rarely seen without a cigarette holder. Now would someone as sharp as Johnny actually trust a man like this? Mike is throwing a coming out (a different meaning then) party for Johnny when Johnny's neurotic ex Maggie (Jill Bennett) turns up. Carter announces gleefully “The Queen has arrived” and a short time later, at Johnny's request, she is shown off the premises after an ugly scene. However our anti-hero is not going to be without female company for long as on getting into bed that night he is a little surprised to find a naked woman (Bavarian actress Margit Saad) in his bed; after nearly chucking her out they get to talking and find they actually are attracted to each other… and before you know it Johnny has a new girlfriend on his release date. He wastes no time at all in arranging a big robbery at a racetrack abetted by slimy Mike and his two horrible henchman, Nigel Green (before getting decent parts) and Larry Taylor. Quite how this robbery is achieved is a little confusing, as indeed is the whole racetrack sequence. After leaving the track with bags of stolen dosh in a 'put up' taxi we then suddenly cut to Johnny driving alone in his Cadillac before stopping and walking into a huge field to bury a trunk full of money. What exactly happened in the interim period? Unfortunately he puts a wad in his overcoat pocket (he didn't even empty the satchel with the stolen loot taken from the race totalizer office).
No sooner does he return to his flat when he is greeted by his girlfriend and two police officers - he's already been ‘shopped’. Who by then? Slimy Sam? The coppers (who find the incriminating wad in his pocket) inform Johnny that it was his ex who grassed him up. The wad by the way was in his overcoat before, not his suit coat. Anyway our Johnny is soon back in the same prison after only six weeks - where he is ‘welcomed’ back by the rather sadistic and manipulative head prison warder Mr. Barrows (gravel-voiced Patrick Magee in one of his best roles) who mentioned upon Johnny's release that he'd be “seeing him soon”. A wise man our Mr. Barrows. Since those six weeks have passed things have changed drastically: we now have an Italian Mafiosi-type prison overlord named Frank Saffron (Gregoire 'Co-Co' Aslan) who Johnny approaches to help him get out. Can he trust this man? Quite frankly, whom on earth can Johnny trust? He also needs a transfer to his old block (where he has to handle a couple of nasty Irish lads who think they've stepped into shoes). This is all arranged for forty grand… which is exactly the sum Johnny buried in a wide open field - how on earth can he find that spot again anyway? A violent prison riot ensues and Johnny is set up in more ways than one. Now it is indeed all aboard for the skylark but there will be no rainbow in sight here for anyone…
This film is relentless with regards to the all out action, which more than makes amends for the number of loopholes that abound as far as the script is concerned. Johnny’s erratic behavior at the denouement makes no sense at all. Quite why the film was so controversial in its day (especially in Finland) seems a little odd to understand in this day and age. By nowadays prison standards it seems pretty tame – anyone ever seen the hard-hitting US prison drama OZ? There’s a comparison! It is a ‘man's film' and scriptwriter Alun Owen's depiction of women hardly says much.
Director Joseph Losey was another one who got out of Tinseltown before it came on top. As a member/ex-member of the Communist Party he would obviously have been blacklisted! This opus, known in the States as 'The Concrete Jungle', was penned by Alun Owen from an idea by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster. It appears that Losey had originally wanted the entire film to be made in a prison (Wandsworth was used in the film) but that may have been perhaps just too claustrophobic. However, the majority of the film is shot 'inside'.
Johnny Dankworth's score, with his wife Cleo Laine singing the catchy title song 'Thieving Boy' in her own inimitable way, compliments the film only too well. The icy location shots and Robert Krasker’s photography enhance this minor classic even more, to say nothing of the who's who of British character actors. Noel Willman (a respected theatre director) in the role of Prison Governor is his usual cold and unemotional self, while Patrick Wymark as Sol is telling as another slippery con. Australian baldy Kenneth J. Warren is nicely cast as bullyboy Cobbler, but quite how John Van Eyssen as prison inmate Formby, sounding like a member of the Royal family, survives in such an environment is another matter.
THE CRIMINAL is presented in a brand new restoration and bonus material includes ‘Audio Commentary’ by film historian Kat Ellinger.