Friday, July 03, 2009


Michael Tuchner's 1971 Brit crime outing 'Villain' came with one of the best taglines ever: "Meet Vic Dakin ... then wish you hadn't."

Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) is a vicious East End gangster with an appetite for rough trade and an almost unhealthy attachment to his mother. I'm guessing that Tuchner, Burton and scripters Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais were crossed off Ronnie Kray's Christmas card list soon after the film came out.

Burton, coming off bland historical epic 'Anne of the Thousand Days' and indifferent war movie 'Raid on Rommel', tears into the part, turning what could have been a hackneyed, one-note role into a symphony of hair-trigger menace and snarling contempt. When his nemesis Inspector Matthews (Nigel Davenport) announces he has witnesses against him, the caustic response is, "If I looked at one of them, they'd piss in their pants. Because I'm Vic Dakin!" Clement and la Frenais bring the same quick-fire patter to 'Villain' that they did to their sitcom scripts. Greeting Matthews as "Sergeant", the copper reminds Dakin of his promotion. "Come through, has it?" Dakin sneers, adding (without missing a beat), "That's nice. Bit more on your widow's pension."

It's tempting to describe their screenplay as a forerunner of their work on Roger Donaldson's 'The Bank Job'. Both follow the three-act structure of job gets planned; job is executed but with unforeseen consequences; various parties try to screw each other over in the aftermath. Both feature an effortless interweaving of subplots. Both depict peers of realm compromised by their extra-matiral shenanigans and in the pockets of underworld figures as a result. But whereas 'The Bank Job', notwithstanding its occasional moments of brutality, is essentially playful in its construction and knowingly ironic in its evocation of hard-edged 70s thrillers, 'Villain' is a hard-edged 70s thriller and what bit of humour Clement and la Frenais bring to the table is cynical, acidic and sparingly doled out.

The plot kicks off with Dakin getting some inside information from a disaffected wages clerk (James Cossins): a payroll, three heavies, ordinary car (the firm's awaiting delivery of an armoured van), £70k easy. Dakin's mind is more on his former squeeze Wolfe (Ian McShane), a bisexual hustler who's introduced pimping out his Home Counties girlfriend Venetia (Fiona Lewis) to sleazy but well-connected politican Gerald Draycott (Donald Sinden). Dakin's crew have their doubts - robbery's not their usual game - and to complicate matters the job would take place in someone else's "manor". Still, 70 grand is 70 grand (this is 1971, remember) and Dakin sets out get fellow mobster Frank Fletcher (T.P. McKenna)'s permission to operate on his turf.

Fletcher's hesitant, though. The job's risky. Then a strike is announced which affects the payroll transportation dates, and it's make your mind up time for all involved: hit the payroll the next day or not at all. Fletcher comes onboard, along with his right-hand-man Edgar Lowis (Joss Ackland).

What happens next is one of the best botched robberies scenes in crime cinema. The guards handling the payroll twig to Dakin's box-them-in-and-force-them-off-the-road tactics. A frenetic barrage of squealing tyres, twisted metal and down 'n' dirty hand-to-hand ensues (in fact, with its punchy editing, realistic violence and backdrops of industrial wastelands, 'Villain' presupposes the in-your-face aestheic of 'The Sweeney' by four years). The money is booby-trapped. Steel spikes erupt from one of the cases, injuring Lowis. A gas canister spews choking orange fumes from another. Fletcher takes a pasting.

Miraculously, however, they escape the scene. Dakin, knowing the heat will be coming down on him (Matthews has spent the first half of the film harrassing him, seemingly on general principle), leaves what remains of the money with Lowis. This is where things start going wrong for him. In short order Lowis is nicked and Matthews arrests Dakin in front of his dear old mum.

Cue Wolfe, now back in the fold and putting up with the beatings that constitute Dakin's understanding of foreplay, and the dirt he has on Draycott. Alibis a-go-go and Dakin's back on the street, pissed off and wanting the money. But Matthews is just as determined to put him behind bars ...

'Villain' is a solid 70s crime movie: the script is pacy, Tuchner's direction taut and clear-sighted (it was his first film; sadly, everything he made subsequently was by-the-numbers), and the entire cast - including Colin Welland, Tony Selby and Del Henney relishing decently-written secondary roles - fire on all cylinders. Cinematographer Christopher Challis, a million miles away from the romantic musings of Powell & Pressburger (he shot seven of their films), colours 'Villain' grim. His vision of post-swinging-Sixties London is a masterclass in unloveliness: vast acreages of concrete, abandoned factories, soulless arterial roads and flyovers, broken-down lean-to's under railway arches. The poet Shelley wrote "Hell is a city much like London". Pace Challis. His London spawned Vic Dakin, and if that isn't proof I don't know what is.

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