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British crime films took a nasty turn in the 1970s, finally embracing realistic stories of 'spivs' and hard-case gangsters that the London film censors had been trying to suppress ever since Richard Attenborough's spiv Pinky Brown wielded a straight razor in 1947's Brighton Rock.
The murderous thugs the Kray Brothers had been dark legends for almost twenty years when MGM's Villain was released. In a surprisingly committed performance, Richard Burton plays a Kray-like gang leader who loves his mum and takes pleasure in slaughtering anybody who gives him grief. Although not that well known today, Villain is a superior gangster tale packed with realistic, perverse twists.
Wealthy mob boss Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) slashes a suspected squealer and hangs his body out of a high window, a theatrical gesture that gets the attention of Inspector Matthews (Nigel Davenport). Besides supervising his gang, Dakin derives personal satisfaction from torture and murder. Completely devoted to his mother (Cathleen Nesbitt), he's a homosexual with a possessive streak; his latest conquest is Wolfe Lissner (Ian McShane), a pimp and a blackmailer who uses women to compromise important men. In the rigid gang hierarchy, Lissner must hide his girlfriend Venetia (Fiona Lewis). Always itching for new challenges, Dakin bullies his fellow gang leaders into personally taking part in a payroll robbery. It all goes wrong, but Lissner blackmails Draycott (Donald Sinden), a Member of Parliament, into give Dakin an alibi. But as soon as he's released Dakin turns once again to violence.
An excellent, if brutally realistic crime picture, Villain finally shows just how low and sordid are the crimes of flashy Brit crooks. Like the original Ronnie Kray, Vic Dakin is a functioning psychopath whose every relationship is based on intimidation and outright fear. His exaggerated devotion to his mother harks back to White Heat, a film that has been suggested was a major influence on British spivs in the early 1950s. As with James Cagney's Cody Jarrott, when 'mother' dies Vic loses his perspective and judgment.
Innocent people are used in appalling ways in Villain. Matthew's stool pigeon Benny is killed with a razor. The loathsome Wolfe Lissner later forces Benny's girlfriend Patti (Elizabeth Knight) to sleep with the perverted MP Drayton. Dakin gets his fellow gang bosses involved because the factory he wants to rob is on their turf. He bullies his fellow 'old guys' into participating in the robbery with the reasoning that none of them can hold power unless they're willing to show the young punks they still have what it takes. One of them has a partially debilitating ulcerous condition! But when the caper fizzles Dakin leaps to the conclusion that he's been double-crossed and starts acting like a loose-cannon spiv. The underworld system of airtight secrecy and furtive nastiness falls apart when Vic starts doing things by instinct.
The movie has a number of excellent action scenes, including the slick kidnapping of a patient from a hospital. The payroll robbery almost turns into a comedy of errors when the guards and passersby put up a fight against Dakin's five or six cohorts. The bags with the money have unexpected anti-theft devices that cause havoc as well. Dakin comes off as a venal psychotic, as the caper takes place only to satisfy his vanity. He and his fellow bosses are already raking in the dough, and shouldn't need to take such foolish risks.
As a Yank I'm unable to judge regional accents or whether or not Burton's acting is too exaggerated. They certainly work for me. This is a pretty edgy role for Ian McShane. Wolfe Lissner has somehow become the favored lover of a twisted boss who doesn't want to know that his best boy prefers women. In once scene Lissner is just getting into bed with his sweetheart (who he's pimped out as well!) when Dakin arrives, outraged that Lissner is dallying with a tart. It's been reported that a more direct gay sex scene was filmed, but it didn't make the MGM cut. The strongest sex content is a brief bit of R-rated nudity from the gorgeous Fiona Lewis.
A few years later Ian McShane would take over playing brutal underworld figures, although Bob Hoskins held that crown for a while with his superb The Long Good Friday.
Nigel Davenport is solid as the cop on Dakin's trail, while actor Collin Welland (Davenport's assistant), Del Henney (one of Dakin's thugs) and T.P. McKenna (a crime boss) appeared the same year in Sam Peckinpah's huge hit Straw Dogs. Popular Joss Ackland is the sad-sack crime boss robber with the bad ulcer.
Strangely enough, an Al Lettieri received a story adaptation credit on the film. Various sources list this writer is the same person as the American actor who specialized in playing mob thugs.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Villain is a very pleasant surprise, a Brit crime film from the same vicious mold as Mike Hodge's Get Carter (to be reviewed here soon). Christopher Challis's Panavision cinematography takes us to gambling clubs, posh country estates and the upscale apartments where live Vic Dakin's successful cronies.
I'm wondering if MGM gave instructions for a 'mid-Atlantic' dub job on the film for America, for I had no trouble deciphering all the dialogue in a movie that one would expect to be riddled with thick neighborhood accents (like Get Carter.
Composer Jonathan Hodge provided the impressive music score; he may be the same talent who composed the marvelous music and songs for the animated short subject comedy Great (1975), about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I haven't seen it in thirty years but I still remember the song, "It's a Big One!"
The disc has no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.