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.
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
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
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
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 -
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
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
(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:
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