Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This is a superior crime thriller centering on the British 'spiv' menace of the immediate post-WW2 years, in which undisciplined punks styled their criminal enterprises after American gangster movies. It's primarily a docudrama of a famous miscarriage of justice that's still debated in England. In his commentary director Peter Medak claims that the Derek Bentley execution has remained a cultural milestone as big as our Kennedy assassination: Everyone remembers where they were on the morning of the hanging.
Medak rallies an impressive stellar cast around a pair of great youthful talents, and achieves a nice balance between psychological drama and documentary realism.
Little Derek Bentley survives the London blitz bombings but grows into a troubled youth due to epilepsy and slow-wittedness. After a tour in reform school Derek (Christopher Eccleston) returns to his mother and father (Eileen Atkins and Tom Courtenay) and a doting sister Iris (Clare Holman). But as soon as he's on the street he gets entangled with young 'spiv' Chris Craig (Paul Reynolds), a cocky fan of Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney who carries guns to school and runs his own gang to impress his older brother, Niven (Mark McGann). Derek joins in on some minor criminal activity, but swears off after an epileptic seizure. When Niven is tried and sentenced to a long prison term Chris becomes unstable. To demonstrate his solidarity, Derek initiates a nighttime burglary that goes horribly wrong.
Although it's meant as a social document about capital punishment and the raw deal given a particular young spiv as an example for others, "Let Him Have It" is mainly fascinating for its vivid portrait of English juvenile delinquency. Times are tough, rationing is still in effect and latchkey kids have grown into punks with guns. A public school teacher nets five pistols in a raid on a schoolroom; the immature Chris Craig keeps his snub-nosed .38 on his nightstand next to his Lesney toy cars. The young thugs affect the dress and manner of hoods in American thrillers, and we even see them walking admiringly past a tall poster for the James Cagney gangster epic White Heat. But the fancy clothes are almost their only spoils, and the hoods must make due with status among their classmates. Chris talks smart and succeeds in manipulating kids twice his size. Outwardly he's Little Caesar but inside he idolizes his older brother Niven, who drives around in an ostentatious American convertible with the neighborhood's flashiest blonde (Serena Scott Thomas) on his arm.
The movie makes the hapless Derek a fall guy in more ways than one. Well aware of his lack of intelligence and epileptic handicap, Derek stays in his room a full year after release from the "approved school" (a reform school, a 'borstal'). He's soon enlisted as a sidekick-henchman for Chris Craig's little band of thieves. Derek's simply not bright enough to live by his wits - he can't even use the correct rationing sticker at the butcher's. He never carries a weapon until his last caper, when Chris gives him a 'knuckle duster' (brass knuckles).
The centerpiece of the picture is Chris and Derek's bungled crime. Trapped on a rooftop, Chris goes berserk over his brother's prison sentence, as if conditioned to do so by American gangster movies. Derek is already in custody and obeying the instructions of his arresting officer (Tom Bell) when the critical verbal exchange happens. The cop demands Chris's gun. Derek shouts "Let him have it, Chris!" whereupon Chris shoots anyway. Witnesses only hear Derek's shout. One policeman is wounded and Chris kills another with a wild shot before unsuccessfully trying to kill himself.
The trial is a rush job convened by a judge (Michael Gough) clearly itching to send a political message about law and order. Chris is too young (16) to be tried as an adult so the weight of the murder falls on Derek as an accomplice, with the mis-heard quote as the damning evidence against him: "Let him have it, Chris!" is wrongly (?) taken as an incitement to shoot. Derek is too slow-witted to answer questions in a constructive way, and his low IQ and confused nature is never brought before the court. The Bentley family rushes to Derek's aid but appeals and pleas for mercy are ignored. Demonstrators hurt the case by pointing to the death penalty as the key issue. The judge uses Derek's death sentencing to grandstand his approval of police "gallantry" in the case.
In 1991 when the film was made Derek's parents had already passed away, but his sister Iris (a consultant) used the film's publicity to get the case reopened. Two attempts later, Derek Bentley was finally pardoned. As sympathetic as the film is toward Derek, we can't get over the basic fact that he was indeed an accomplice in reckless crime that ended in a killing. When policemen are shot by mixed-up kids, there will always be a legitimate call for retribution. Unless "Let Him Have It" is a gross exaggeration, in Derek's case the courts seem to have gone too far in convicting him of first-degree murder.
The Bentley case was but one notorious Spiv incident of the late 40s and 50s. Phil Hardy's The Gangster Film encyclopedia mentions the increasing violence of English crime pictures after the war, with
Gainsborough and Associated British putting out notorious pictures like No Orchids for Miss Blandish (remade by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang) that outraged moral guardians as much as would the Hammer horror films a decade later. Spivs were big news in pictures like Brighton Rock, Dancing with Crime and Good Time Girl. Richard Attenborough's popularity soared when he played a razor-wielding spiv in Brighton Rock. Finally, 1952's Cosh Boy starring James Kenney garnered the distinction of being the very first "Certificate X" release, reaching theaters just as Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley came to trial. The biggest influence on the Craig-Bentley case was a moral backlash against the same American crime films and comics that were blamed for the corruption of youth in the States.
Peter Medak The Ruling Class directs with a firm hand, and both Christopher Eccleston and Paul Reynolds are fascinating to watch. Eccleston never lets Derek become a dull oaf and Reynolds is both charming and chilling as the almost completely maladjusted Craig. The list of noted actors in small roles is impressive: Ronald Fraser, Iain Cuthbertson, James Villiers, Norman Rossington, Michael Elphick, Jeremy Sinden. Clive Revill has a short but memorable bit as an ultra-efficient hangman.
Image's release of New Line's "Let Him Have It" is a sparkling clean transfer of excellent elements, enhanced and handsomely encoded. It does not appear to be time compressed, although the running time is five minutes short of the official length in reference sources. Kay Starr's pop tune Wheel of Fortune is billboarded in the film's soundtrack score.
Director Medak provides a welcome commentary. He tends to drone but covers plenty of material we want to know about, such as the ultimate success of Iris Bentley's campaign for a pardon. Although most of the film's dialogue is clear, we'd still have welcomed English subtitles to help with some of the thicker Croydon accents.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
"Let Him Have It" rates:
Supplements: Trailer, Commentary by director Peter Medak
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 27, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson