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Savant is always on the prowl for 1970s-era British crime films, many of which continue the film noir tradition in a sordid and brutal criminal environment, with few concessions to mainstream notions of 'good taste'. Nasty crooks Michael Caine in Get Carter and Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday are fairly well known, and not long ago I caught up with Richard Burton in the rather good Villain. A recommendation from Savant correspondent Tom Giegel has led me to a picture I'd never heard of, 1977's The Squeeze. The jarringly entertaining thriller stars Stacy Keach, David Hemmings and Edward Fox. Director Michael Apted's depiction of the sleazy London underworld is both exciting and convincing.
Racketeer Vic (Stephen Boyd) backs bad man Keith (David Hemmings) in a cruel kidnap-for-ransom scheme targeting the wealthy businessman Foreman (Edward Fox). They snatch his young daughter and wife Jill (Carol White of Poor Cow) from a park and hold them in a remote house. Foreman doesn't dare go to the police. What the crooks don't know is that Jill's ex-husband is Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach), a former Scotland Yard inspector who turned to drink when Jill left and is presently struggling to make a living with low-end private detective work. Aided by his friend (and chronic shoplifter) Teddy (Freddie Starr), Jim's instincts lead him fairly quickly to the culprits -- who have no idea he's taken the case, or is even aware of the kidnapping. When Keith realizes that Naboth is involved, he gives Foreman an ultimatum: to kill the alcoholic nuisance.
We can't deny the fact that much of the appeal of these '70s Brit thrillers is the sleaze factor: these lowlife hoods like liquor, money and sex, and the combination of sex and violence offered up is better than a stack of hardboiled pulp fiction novels. Lone Yankee cast member Stacy Keach completely overcomes his American roots by simply altering his speech a bit. He makes no attempt at a full Brit accent and fits in perfectly. His Jim Naboth starts out as an unsalvageable wreck and puts himself together bit by bit. He's a good father to the son he had with Jill despite having to explain to the kid why he's coming home drunk, or beaten to a pulp by Vic's bodyguards. The screenplay by Leon Griffiths manages a good explanation why Vic and Keith don't simply murder Naboth on sight: they think he's a worthless disgraced cop, and they like being able to push him around. They humiliate Jim by sending him home bruised and naked. Naboth's neighbors really aren't surprised -- a helpful black woman lends him a coat.
After a slow first scene the film picks up pace. The kidnapping gives us an exciting gallery of characters. Edward Fox's Foreman prepares to steal $300 thousand of his business's money to ransom Jill and his daughter. He clearly hates Jim Naboth but has no choice but to accept his help. Naboth sobers up and decides that saving the life of his son's mother is the right thing to do, no matter how much she's hurt him. Eccentric pal Teddy seems sexually hung-up on Naboth, and continually breaks in when Jim is trying to make love to his new girlfriend Barbara (Hilary Gasson), a nurse from the drunk tank. Teddy would seem a pest except that he's more than willing to stick his neck out for Naboth, and takes personal risks for him.
The civilized cutthroats Vic and Keith call themselves businessmen, not crooks. Vic keeps a shotgun handy despite having two bodyguards on duty. He's intensely proud of his own daughter and doesn't mind if most of his own family fears him. Keith commands a top-level crew of five, hoods that become so bored babysitting their captives that the daughter almost gets away. Jill soon retreats to a morose state. As she can identify her kidnappers, she's convinced that she'll not be released alive.
Director Michael Apted once again displays his versatility -- this is the same man whose name is on those "-Up" movies chronicling the lives of a half-dozen people in 7-year increments. He's also the director of movies as diverse as Stardust, Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist.
The show is packed with excellent, atypical genre action. Jim and Teddy link Vic and Keith together and carefully trace a path to a disused factory where the hostages might be hidden. Caught sneaking into Vic's house, Naboth is humiliated and beaten, and barely convinces Vic not to murder him. Jim and Foreman have a fight on the rich man's yacht, and almost collide with a large ship, right in the middle of the Thames. Finding the detective in a drunken state, Foreman takes him to a massage parlor, where Jim recovers quickly enough to respond to his masseuse's offer of 'extras'. And the concluding action scenes have everything: high tension, big surprises and ruthless violence.
Above all, The Squeeze wins us over through a willingness to push its exploitative thrills farther over the edge. The camera doesn't flinch when Vic roughs up Jim, stripping him and threatening his groin with his shotgun. Jim has to explain to his son what's going on, even as it looks as if Dad has fallen down on the job. The bad guys know no restraint. Although the film avoids anything sick in connection with the kidnapping of a small girl, we still have no guarantee that her life will be spared.
The briskly paced show takes good advantage of its on-the-street locations. Stacy Keach once again proves himself a fearless performer, as does the 'Battersea Bardot' Carol White. Sidekick Freddie Starr is said to be a well-known English personality-celebrity with a rocky personal history. In one of his last films, Stephen Boyd is excellent as the high-toned mobster, and favorite David Hemmings neatly sketches a truly reprehensible hood. It feels great to see Keith's panic when discovers Jim Naboth's true interest in the kidnapping. With his Scotland Yard training and experience, the alcoholic Naboth is far more dangerous a foe than either of the crooks realize.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of The Squeeze has been available for three years, and I'm happy to have caught up with it. The enhanced widescreen transfer is excellent and the clear audio features some really great soundtrack music by David Hentschel. Brit crime films wouldn't be the same without the special jargon and mumbled accents of the London streets, but the dialogue in The Squeeze is mercifully easy to understand. I only missed a couple of lines. The Archive disc comes with no subtitles.
These rough-and-tumble Brit crime films seem more exciting than ever. Can't find your dog-eared Jim Thompson pulp fiction paperbacks? The hardboiled entertainment The Squeeze will more than satisfy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Squeeze rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.