Thursday 25 April 2013

Sitting Target
(Douglas Hickox, 1972)

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.

Not that the film’s quality should come as that much of a surprise I suppose. Director Hickox came to ‘Sitting Target’ following a divisive adaptation of Joe Orton’s ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, and went straight on to make the much-loved ‘Theatre of Blood’, taking the unpromising (from a mainstream POV at least) shell of a retirement-era Vincent Price bodycount flick and transforming it into one of the most perennially popular British-made horror movies of all time.* In their own way, both of these projects – precariously balanced between outrage and respectability – suggest that Hickox was perfectly placed to go to town on a smart, violent crime movie… and a hefty bank-roll from MGM probably didn’t hurt matters either.

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’.

Anyway, point is, whilst ‘Sitting Target’ is not exactly lavishly budgeted by Hollywood standards, it clearly had more cash to throw around than your average British b-movie, and the bulk of it seems to have been invested wisely – in production design, technical expertise, casting, stunt-work, music… stuff that really matters, in other words.

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.

For my money, the film’s opening half hour – filmed largely in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, subbing for a non-specific English prison – is practically faultless, launching straight into what looks to be a brutal, existential crime yarn in the tradition of Jim Thompson or Jean-Pierre Melville. And what better vehicle for your brutal, existential needs than Oliver Reed, here looking more embittered and punch-drunk than ever, expressing more pent-up rage in a single flared nostril than most actors manage in a lifetime?

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.

Hickox wastes little time in establishing the bind Lomart is in, setting out his inner turmoil and limited range of action with admirable cinematic efficiency, whilst Stanley Myers’ so-fucking-bad-ass-I-can-scarcely-believe-it psychotronic score adds tension-building pulse to proceedings**, as we head straight into a tour de force prison break sequence that is vicious and suspenseful enough to actually seem kinda convincing. Lomart and his best mate Birdy (Ian McShane) team up with a snooty Firm big-wig to make their escape (an excellent turn from the rarely-less-than-excellent Freddie Jones) , scaling walls, paying off and/or bludgeoning night-guards and beating a guard dog to death with a brick, culminating in a nail-biting bit of chasm-crossing grappling hook business that sees Reed swinging Tarzan-style toward the outer wall with seconds to spare (I really hope he did his own stunts).

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.

Sadly, the remainder of ‘Sitting Target’ perhaps doesn’t *quite* live up to the promise of the opening prison segment. Somehow it feels as if the freedom of movement offered by the outside world invites the movie to take on some slack, loosen its belt a few notches. But even as the brooding Melville-ism is overtaken by a more commercially minded, action-packed approach to the genre, there’s still an absolute shit ton of stuff left to enjoy here, often enlivened by the same spirit of devil-may-care mayhem and street-level psychopathy that fuelled the contemporaneous Italian crime boom.

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.

It’s a particular treat to see the familiarly drab environs of just-over-the-river South-West London transformed into a viable backdrop for shoot-outs, double-crosses and pyrotechnics, as the sodden, concrete landscapes of Clapham Junction and Battersea begin to play an increasingly prominent role in proceedings. Using chaotic, vertiginous angles and jagged, asymmetrical lines, Hickox fills this overlooked corner of London with noir-ish signifiers of confinement and confusion, adapting them for a new era and a new city, as tower blocks, construction sites, snaking rail lines and the crumbling remnants of Victoriana combine to reflect Lomart’s tormented headspace; brutalist design meets brutalist behaviour, if you will.

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.

Like a thousand other 70s crime flicks, ‘Sitting Target’s conclusion decamps to a junk-strewn, disused railyard (directly opposite Battersea Power Station, if the editing is to be believed), matching up the splintered allegiances and collapsing plans of the story with a visual palette of twisted metal, shattered glass and rust-covered girders that’s pretty much obligatory for this kind of movie, but is captured with particular verve here. In an inspired move, Reed gets to screech around is some kind of bright red, soft-topped land-rover / dune buggy type thing – perhaps the perfect vehicular equivalent of the actor himself (assuming you discount the possibility of a pirate-hijacked Victorian dreadnaught) - and much fire, bloodshed and heavily sign-posted bathos ensues, leading us through a wholly satisfactory stock conclusion.

Overall, I think ‘Sitting Target’ is one of those films that works best as a purely visceral experience. As soon as you subject it to closer examination, significant flaws start piling up left & right. For one thing, former Bond girl and American interest Jill St John really doesn’t cut it as Lomart’s missus. Set adrift in a film in which the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, her nervy, exaggerated mannerisms and wobbly trans-atlantic accent (like Reed’s cockney, it comes and goes) fail to ever quite convince, and the expository dialogue she feeds police detective Edward Woodward in their scene together feels clunky as hell.

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.

Bloody cinema, you bastards!

* Interestingly, ‘Sitting Target’ also shares several shooting locations with ‘Theatre of Blood’. One beautifully shot but entirely pointless scene has Reed wandering across the stage at the derelict Putney Hippodrome (site of many of Price’s depredations in ‘..Theatre’), and if I’m not mistaken, the final showdowns of both films take place in the same SW London railyard / car park type place.

**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.


a fog of ideas said...

I was just reading about this in 'Offbeat' by Julian Upton... that gave me a taster, your write up served up a delicious banquet, the film itself can be pudding, an irish coffee and a cigar... thank you

Ben said...

Thanks Andy, glad you enjoyed it! (I actually just re-edited the post a little to make the wordage flow a little better... should have done a final read thro0ugh before posting, etc.)

I'd not heard of 'Offbeat', but it looks like a great read - copy duly ordered!

Re: getting a copy of 'Sitting Target', I'd very much recommend the recent MGM made-on-demand DVD that I think is currently available on Amazon UK through several sellers. It's off-puttingly pricey for just a DVD-R in a box, but the widescreen print just looks so much better than the full-screen TV versions I found, uh, "elsewhere".

The Penguin Party said...

Great to read a detailed review of the film. Sitting Target was based on the book by Laurence Henderson (my father-in-law). Interesting you think the first half (which is pretty faithful to the book) is better than the 2nd half (which isn't) :)
Worth a read, if you can track it down on eBay: Gritty crime drama which predated the likes of The Sweeney by several years. His other books (Cage Until Tame, With Intent and The Final Glass) are also crackers.