Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) is due for release from prision tomorrow. He essentially runs this wing of the gaol and when a prisoner from a rival wing is put in his territory, it is not long before that man suffers a brutal beating at the hands of one of Bannion's fellow inmates. The Prison Governor wants Bannion out however and he heads back home to meet up with his old gang who have another job ready to go. Things are complicated though when he falls for a rather insistant young woman named Suzanne. He goes through with the job but decides to hide the money in a field and when he is arrested later that day, his gang resort to the only method they can to get Johnny to tell where he has hidden the loot - they kidnap Suzanne...
Writer Alun Owen provides this crime thriller with a tense and unrelenting storyline. The crime film had become newly popular in the 1960s as the rise of social realist cinema turned the tables on tradition and showed the action from the side of the criminals rather than the law. Owen goes a step further here and puts the focus entirely on the criminals and the playboy Johnny Bannion, who is a long way from the genre's usual working class characters. The majority of the films revolved around the thrill of the big 'job' and the planning and aftermath but Owen's script takes a different view, with the robbery itself being a minor scene in the middle of the film, focusing instead on characters, prison life and the way the underworld works.
Although the 1960 realist crime boom pushed the boundaries of cinema, Criminal is often touted as the most brutal of the era and it is a reputation it deserves. The scenes in the prison try to show a completely unromanticised view of life behind bars, where men can be beaten up for no reason, where the prisoners seem to have more power than the guards and where the prison governor is powerless to intervene, just having to go along with what the criminals say. The underworld as well is not the big family of the old mob movies, but a dangerous heirarchy of men all trying to outdo each other and prepared to go to extreme lengths to get their way. Characterisation is almost unusually strong, Owen makes sure we know not just about the main characters, but provides us with a lot of interesting details about the periphery as well. There are fascinating hints dropped about the prison warden Barrows suggesting that he might be in the pocket of one of the criminal leaders, similarly the motivations of Suzanne remain vague throughout the film. Rather than coming across as plot holes, these are things that Johnny himself does not know and fit in with the film's aim to show us everything through his eyes. This all means that things move pretty quickly and there is no spoon feeding of the plot so the audience need to stay focused to keep up. The pace never slackens in the second half and it all builds to a particularly effective climax.
Director Joseph Losey might have been turfed out of his home country by anti-communists, but it is clear that he has well found his feet in the UK. Every frame of this film's stark black and white footage looks superb. Unlike some of his other works, particularly his Harold Pinter collabarations, this is a much more straight forward film with none of the surreality that marked an entry like The Servant (1963), but he does include a couple of unorthodox shots, firstly of a character looking through a kaleidoscope and later a theatrical soliloquy from a prisoner with the background dissolving into black. In keeping with the brutal script, Losey is not afraid to focus in on the violence, particularly in a cell beating early on, where another film might have cut away, he stays and we see the reactions of the poor victim - similarly during the prison riot we see a number of prison officers being attacked by the inmates. A haunting main theme on the soundtrack is used very well to emphasise the sorrow and dispair running through the whole film; the rest of the score is fittingly contemporary jazz.
Stanley Baker had built his career through the 1950s and was breaking through as one of the biggest starts in British cinema in 1960. His leading role here is perfect casting and an acting masterclass - he looks every bit the part and really convinces in the fight scenes. The rest of the cast is a veritable who's who of British cinema with the highlights being Patrick Magee's hard-to-read portrayal of Burrows the prison guard, which works with the script to leave us puzzling, and Nigel Green as a ruthless 'heavy'. Sam Wanamaker is more than just the token American and his sly but menacing attitude is ideal for the role. The rest of the cast are solid, look out for familiar faces like Noel Willman, Edward Judd, Tom Bell and Patrick Wymark.
Possibly the best of the many crime films that Britain produced around 1960, Criminal gets a strong script, some seriously fine acting and an excellent director. A film that all classic cinema fans should track down and a must have for any fans of Losey, Baker or the film noir/Brit-crime eras. Highly recommended.
|Anyone famous in it?||Stanley Baker - tough Welsh actor who also starred in gritty crime picture Hell is a City (1960)|
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Joseph Losey - an American director who fled the Communist witch-hunts to make films in Europe. He worked several times with Baker, including the romantic drama Eva (1962) and Accident (1967)|
|Any gore or violence ?||Some fight scenes, nothing particularly bloody.|
|Any sex or nudity?||None|
|Who is it for?||A must see for fans of Baker or Losey, and for fans of the Brit-crime or Film Noir genres.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 1.66:1 widescreen. Anamorphically enhanced. Black and White.
A solid print with minimal grain and damage.
|Audio||Original English mono - sounds fine.|
|Extras||This disc includes:
|Region||Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL|
|Availability||Only available in the Optimum Joseph Losey Collection.|
|Other regions?||Previously released in the US by Anchor Bay without the documentary - that disc does not include the end credit sequence which although not affecting the storyline, does add some emphasis to the final scene with the gentle fade in of the music. Released in Germany by Universal as Spur führt ins Nichts, including the documentary as well as a Spanish audio track and German, English, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norweigan, Finnish, Swedish and Polish subtitles.|
|Cuts?||The DVD is believed to be fully uncut. English language print.
The film was originally cut by the BBFC for theatrical release.