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DVD SAVANT

The Criminal


The Criminal
Anchor Bay
1960 / b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 97 92 min. / The Concrete Jungle / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Stanley Baker, Sam Wanamaker, Grégoire Aslan, Margit Saad, Jill Bennett, Rupert Davies, Laurence Naismith, John Van Eyssen, Noel Willman, Kenneth Warren, Patrick Magee, Kenneth Cope, Patrick Wymark, Paul Stassino, Tom Bell, Neil McCarthy, Nigel Green, Tom Gerard, Edward Judd
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Production Designer Richard MacDonald
Art Direction Scott MacGregor
Film Editor Reginald Mills
Original Music John Dankworth
Written by Alun Owen and Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Jack Greenwood
Directed by Joseph Losey

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Criminal (released in the states as The Concrete Jungle) is a powerful crime film from expatriate director Joseph Losey, near the beginning of his British career upswing. Ringing with thick street argot, and populated with twenty or so impressive English actors we know mostly from later films, this is an excellently-directed, engrossing thriller.

Synopsis:

Top dog Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) finally gets free of prison, where the ineffectual governor (Noel Willman) lets sadistic, games-playing Warden Barrows (Patrick Magee) run things his way. Bannion ditches an old flame, Maggie (Jill Bennett) and takes up with a saucy newcomer, Suzanne (Margit Saad), while planning a robbery for gangster-partner Mike Carter (Sam Wanamaker). Thug Ted (Nigel Green) and driver Quantock (Tom Gerard) help Bannion knock off a racetrack, but he's immediately doublecrossed and sent back to jail. There he can't make heads or tails of what the situation is - everyone, including the authorities, wants the money he's hidden. With Suzanne threatened and prison baron Frank Saffron (Grégoire Aslan) turning the cell block population against him, Bannion has to find a way out, and quick.

Like Losey's other genre-oriented films, The Criminal is a dense interweaving of strong attitudes, this time towards society, freedom and incarceration. Handsome thug Johnny Bannion is a big wheel in prison, but no matter where he goes he's a trapped man. After planning a heist for three years in his jail cell, he emerges from the institutionalized sadism to an equally trap-like existence outside.

The movie reads as a prison-break, caper film, but those are just minor incidents in a larger pattern. We barely see how the racetrack robbery is committed, but a lot of attention is paid to the makeup of Bannion's hastily-assembled gang. Bannion is as manipulated outside prison as he is in, with slimy cohort Sam Wanamaker making deals that reduce him to an errand boy in his own crime. The film is much more concerned with how the underworld, as much as the hypocritical prison system, tends to isolate and neutralize the independent spirit.

With Losey's background, there's a tendency to look for surreptitious social comment, and The Criminal has plenty to offer. Loyalty inside prison is a kind of dog-eat-dog mirror of society at large: everyone gets along, but the whole group can turn murderously against an individual at a moment's notice. The first scene witnesses the punishment dealt a squealer, returned to the cell block by Patrick Magee, a warped warden who seems to get some kind of thrill from anticipating cruelty. But later on, we're shown that the rough justice of the cell block can be manipulated by top-inmate Saffron, to put pressure on Bannion. A few fast moves, and Bannion is reduced from big wheel to social outcast.

The film abounds with tense, dynamic and violent scenes. Brute force rules behind bars, where fatal beatings can be dished out with the warden's blessing, and Bannion is forced into a cell with two bruisers itching to bring him down a notch. The prison riot is almost as chaotic as the wild party Bannion returns to at his apartment. Both show Losey at the top of his game as a director. The violence looks real; the loose women at the party are equally convincing. One dame passes out after crashing across a coffee table, in a shot that echoes the prison violence.

The Criminal predates the mood of existential paranoia that crept into crime films in the late 60s (Point Blank, etc), but the ingredients are all there. Bannion doesn't know who has betrayed him, his ex-girlfriend Jill Bennett, or his new moll Margit Saad. Members of his gang switch loyalties without regret, and even as the crime bosses bilk him out of the loot he's secretly buried, they expect him to take it in good humor. Crime and betrayal, imprisonment and mistreatment, are all part of a world that takes in both sides of the law. Bannion's fate is that of the classic gangster, struggling for his life like a wounded dog, wondering if there ever was a chance to succeed.

Joseph Losey later became a famous art film director, when he abandoned overt genre pictures and slowed down to observe twisted psychological games between sophisticated adults - The Servant, Accident. As good as those films are, they tend toward opaqueness and inscrutability - Accident requires a lot of work just to define its ambiguities. It's easier to appreciate Losey's best thrillers - The Prowler, Time Without Pity, These are the Damned, The Criminal. Some of his best effort seems to have gone into projects he felt needed to be uplifted by his politically-oriented point of view. Far from being a typical indictment of society, The Criminal is convincingly complex.

Losey was always quick to compliment his collaborators. Writer Alun Owen (A Hard Day's Night), gave the film's dialogue a convincing working-class grit. Losey always looked for good writers, and when his pictures failed (The Big Night) it's more often than not from script problems. Richard MacDonald designed most of Losey's big pictures. The Criminal's prison sets are extremely convincing, and Bannion's windowless apartment is a strange kind of bachelor prison cell. Its amenities include a girlie picture on the wall. The rest of the picture is shot with the natural-exterior look of the contemporary kitchen sink movies. Losey was very fond of using offbeat songs in his films, and here Cleo Laine provides a cabaret number, that establishes a strange mood when played incongruously over the prison scenes.

Former all-purpose villain Stanley Baker becomes a star villain here, and it might be his best role. Gangster Sam Wanamaker (who, along with associate director Jim O'Connolly, directed later Ray Harryhausen films) is what used to be called sexually ambiguous. Warden Patrick Magee (looking thin) also seems caught up in some kind of sado-erotic psychology. Jill Bennett (The Nanny) becomes an obvious turncoat, and German Margit Saad is exotically faithful.

Even if the name Joe Losey is unfamiliar, The Criminal is stuffed, I mean packed, with interesting and familiar character faces doing good work. Everywhere one turns, there are old friends to see: Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts) is a detective. John Van Eyssen ( Horror of Dracula), Paul Stassino (Thunderball), Patrick Wymark (Repulsion), Kenneth Warren ( Demons of the Mind) are all inmates. Noel Willman (Kiss of the Vampire) is an uncaring prison Governor, Nigel Green (Zulu) a very effective hit man, and a young Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) has a small part as an inexperienced warder.


Anchor Bay's DVD of The Criminal is another nigh-flawless Canal+ 16:9 transfer obviously from original materials. There's no faulting the smooth b&w presentation, except for the lack of English subs or closed captioning; a lot of the mumbled dialogue is very tough to make out, and at times I just had to do the best I could with context, to see what was going on.

There's an original English trailer with a hardboiled narration, and extensive production notes on Losey and Stanley Baker from Avie Hern, that amount to fully-annotated book chapters.

The uncut-looking film is several minutes shy of the official running length. It's possible that this NTSC release is a conversion of a PAL transfer, which would account for the time difference, but the action on screen does not appear sped-up.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Criminal rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good, but the English argot is hard to understand
Supplements: Trailer, text essays by Avie Hern
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 5, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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