The pantheon of great ‘70s British crime films is, I suppose, I fairly limited one. Whereas Italy, France and Japan were cranking them out with a vengeance, codifying and exploiting every corner of their nations’ rich underworld mythologies, the UK never managed to get a comparable production line rolling, despite having all the requisite ingredients (a readymade hard-boiled aesthetic, an intimidating legacy of real-life hoods, enough industrial wasteland to host a million blood-thirsty showdowns) very much in place. With a film industry increasingly deprived of vital US funding and increasingly snooty in its approach to genre cinema, British crime cinema entered the dread wasteland of the ‘80s clutching a mere handful of carefully guarded classics alongside a scattering of misbegotten duds and money-sink bad ideas, and that’s yr lot really.
As such, good examples of the Brit-crime aesthetic are highly prized, which leads me to rejoice even more in my belated discovery of what turns out to be one of the best of the bunch – Douglas Hickox’ ‘Sitting Target’. Once again, I must here thank the proprietors of London’s Filmbar70 for bringing this one to my attention, their uncanny knack for screening incredible movies that had somehow slipped beneath my radar once again delivering the goods.
Not that I needed much encouragement to step out for a screening of ‘Sitting Target’. I mean – action-packed crime/revenge story? Oliver Reed? South London? 1972? Count me IN! Shooters! Car chases! Coppers in Morris Minors (possibly)! Edward Woodward (definitely)! This is gonna be amazing.
But you know that feeling when you approach a relatively little-known film and think, “well theoretically this sounds great, but I’d better keep my expectations low, because if it actually WAS that great, surely it would be hugely popular and acclaimed; given its continued obscurity, I suppose it will most likely be a missed opportunity or ill-starred fiasco of some kind”? Yes, I’m sure you know that feeling, even if your gut instincts don’t regularly include suffixes and semi-colons. And correspondingly, you’ll probably also be familiar the sense of surprise and elation that follows when you watch a film like ‘Sitting Target’ said discover that yes, it actually IS as good as it sounds - perhaps even landing a dent or two on the rear bumper of ‘Get Carter’ in the great Brit-crime grind up the M4.
Ok, well, maybe not quite. I guess the plotting here is fairly contrived, the characters are pretty shallow (only really distinguished by the oomph the first-rate cast puts into them), and there are some goofy ‘action movie’ moments in the second half that come across as kinda silly, undercutting the prevailing mood of quasi-realism. But on first viewing such things don’t matter much, and on the whole I was verily blown away by just how solidly *good* ‘Sitting Target’ is. In the limited field of British crime, it’s one of the heavy-hitters for sure, going off with the kind of unpretentious, populist bang that’s rarely encountered in the staid world of mainstream British cinema (rated X solely due to its blood-curdling thuggery!), and basically providing one hell of a good time for anyone with a yen for tough crime flicks in general, and the murky underbelly of ‘70s Britain in particular.
Whilst I’ve never actually bothered to research the issue in any detail, my understanding is that it was in around ’72 or ’73 that the American studios started to pull the rug out from under their UK-based operations, thus precipitating the eternal crisis that has dogged the national film industry ever since. But assuming this was the case, you certainly wouldn’t know it from looking at Douglas Hickox’ CV. Both ‘..Target’ and ‘Theatre..’ were backed by MGM and for whatever reason, the director seems to have thrived on such productions, apparently pleasing the studio to the extent that he managed to spend the rest of the decade working on such high profile US/UK crossovers as the bizarre, John Wayne-starring Brit-crime caper ‘Brannigan’ (1975) and 1979’s belated sequel ‘Zulu Dawn’.
Most importantly, ‘..Target’ plays like a film in which the cast and crew had the time to get things right - a rare virtue in genre cinema. Just like the sort of heist the characters presumably wish they could pull off, nearly every shot here seems flawlessly planned and executed. The cinematography (courtesy of Edward Scaife, whose career as DP ranges from ‘Night of the Demon’ to ‘The Dirty Dozen’) is plain superb, making somewhat experimental use of reflections on glass, super-impositions, deep focus and so forth, with some really effective night shooting too. The editing is tight as a story like this requires, and Hickox’s direction, though rarely ostentatious, oozes style, precisely the way a post-Point Blank/Get Carter crime movie should.
In fact we’ve barely even been introduced to jailbird Harry Lomart before he see him subjected to a harrowing spell in solitary confinement following a homicidal assault on his wife (Jill St. John). When she pops in at visiting hour to reluctantly inform Harry that she is seeing another man and wants a divorce, Lomart literally punches straight through the plastic communication grille, foaming at the mouth as he throttles her – an astonishing moment of violence that only an actor like Reed could render believably. Indeed, Lomart turns out to be such a perfect role for Reed that I can only assume the character was written as such, balancing a mixture of brooding, taciturn nihilism and relentless single-mindedness with outbursts of unhinged, hulk-like aggression, and just a hint of blubbing sentimentality behind the machismo… aside from the fact he has to adopt an East End accent in place of his usual husky RP tones (“I’m gonna get that toffee-nosed git one day..”), fans can be assured that this is full-force Reed, exactly the way we like it.
At the risk of repeating myself, all of this is tautly directed, brilliantly performed, and by the time Ollie, Freddie and Lovejoy have made their getaway, swigging from a bottle of scotch in the back of a counterfeit US Army truck as it roars off into the night, I’m finding it hard to believe that a film this good can actually exist without tearing a black hole in the delicate fabric of British cinema.
Once Birdy and Lomart hit London (the latter packing a high-end shooter and fixated on dead wife-shaped vengeance), some of the action set-pieces that transpire are simply ridiculous, but well-chosen locations, keen attention to detail and pure cinematic flash all do their bit to stop things ever going completely off the rails. For instance, a scene in which Reed scurries through a maze of washing lines at the base of a Clapham tower-block dodging a pair of motorcycle cops seems absolutely absurd on a practical level, but as a bravura cinematic sequence is works brilliantly, with disorientating montage editing and bright patterns of gauzy colour, accompanied by Myers’ churning collage of police radio, sirens and malfunctioning synth bleeps – a great example of low(ish) budget cinema’s power to take a pretty laughable concept and render it extraordinary.
In British films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Battersea often seems to feature as a place where deviant toffs and shady characters from across the river in Chelsea keep their quiet little love-nests***, and indeed we see that tradition followed up in another great segment here, as Harry & Birdy crash a spectacularly garish/grotty swank-pad where a former underworld acquaintance (Frank Finley) is housing his current mistress (Jill Townsend). Although he’s not allotted much screen-time, Finley’s portrayal of crooked race-track mogul Marty Gold is one of my favourite things in the whole movie (“Christ, don’t you do nothing but wash your bastard self?” he yells up the stairs as he hears the bath running), and Townsend is very good too (probably the film’s strongest female presence, not that that’s saying much). The whole sequence oozes a wonderful, peculiarly British bad taste, from the pink bathtub and matching telephone to endless supplies of cheap scotch, ceiling mirrors, a sudden mania for elaborate mirror / reflection shots, and what appears to be a giant brandy glass full of goldfish in the living room… heavy Pete Walker vibes predominate, which is fine by me.
Speaking of which, what the hell happened to Woodward’s character anyway? He has one big scene, introduced as if he’s going to be a significant player in the forthcoming drama, but then he disappears completely, only turning up again in the film’s final moments to glower through the flames. I get the feeling much of his screen-time might have ended up on the cutting room floor, and actually the film betrays numerous other symptoms of regrettable script-chopping shenanigans, reducing the story to a set of bare bones that perhaps stick out just a bit too clearly at times (particularly given that many of the best moments result from its assorted detours and local colour). Whilst I personally didn’t guess the finale’s Big Twist on first viewing, I’m sure that if I’d paused for five minutes midway through to examine the several gaping holes in the information the script had provided us with, the ‘shocking’ turn-around would have been rendered pretty bloody obvious – a conclusion more analytical viewers than I will likely reach without the aid of a ‘thinking break’.
But - this kinda stuff doesn’t really matter. It won’t even register on first viewing, what with all the great stuff that’s also being thrown at the screen. Even if it doesn’t quite manage to connect on quite the kind of gut-punch emotional level I demand of real top drawer crime films, this one is easily still, uh, top of the second drawer down, if you get me? A high-energy ninety minute rampage through the streets of Ted Heath’s England, full of flash cinematic business, powerhouse acting and unfeasible mad dog violence, it’s a real thrill to see a British tough-‘70s-crime contender that can step in the ring alongside ‘Gang War in Milan’ or ‘Yakuza Graveyard’, and here’s hoping there’s plenty more of the same out there somewhere awaiting my attention.
**Sitting Target’s OST was reissued by Finders Keepers in 2007. Now out of print, but worth every penny if you can find a copy.
***Well, I’ve seen several films in which this was the case anyway. I don’t know whether it was a frequent enough feature of the era’s cinema to constitute a ‘thing’, but I’d like to think so.