Saturday 28 August 2021

Noir Diary # 16:
The Criminal
(Joseph Losey, 1960)

 Even before he achieved card-carrying ‘auteur’ status following his celebrated collaborations with Harold Pinter, Joseph Losey already had a long history of turning genre conventions outside out. Early American films like psychological noir ‘The Prowler’ (1951) and anti-war allegory ‘The Boy With Green Hair’ (1948) were already total one-offs, and, after the blacklist forced his relocation to the UK, he was soon busy turning humble crime programmer ‘Time Without Pity’ (1957) into an exhausting treatise on post-industrial anxiety, before instigating an unprecedented mash-up of JD youth movie, Kneale-esque science fiction and cold war existentialism in 1962’s extraordinary ‘The Damned’.

All of which makes it interesting to consider just how uncharacteristically normal Losey’s three early collaborations with iconic Welsh tough guy star Stanley Baker turned out to be. The first film they made together, 1959’s ‘Blind Date’ [hastily reviewed on this blog way back in the mists of time] is a stylish but unremarkable whodunit, whilst 1962’s ‘Eve’ [ditto] may have allowed Baker to stretch his thespian wings a little, but is otherwise just a frothy continental melodrama, feeling uncomfortably like a strained British attempt to catch a whiff of post-‘La Dolce Vita’ decadence.

By far the strongest entry in this loose trilogy, 1960’s ‘The Criminal’, is, as its title suggests, just about as generic a crime movie (gangster & prison sub-divisions) as can possibly be imagined. Credited to playwright and future ‘Hard Day’s Night’ screenwriter Alun Owen, from an original draft by Jimmy Sangster, the script manages to trot out a formidable assemblage of hoary old clichés, as Baker’s London-Irish mob boss Johnny Bannion drifts in and out of the slammer whilst punishing his enemies, executing an audacious racetrack heist, hiding the loot, instigating a passionate affair with his ex-girlfriend’s flatmate (Margit Saad), and eventually being betrayed by his trusted right hand man (Losey’s fellow ex-pat Sam Wanamaker).

Could it have been Baker himself who reined in Losey’s more outré tendencies on these projects, I wonder? After all, he got his parallel career as a producer of no nonsense action-adventure pictures off to a flying start with ‘Zulu’ (1964) just a few years later. Indeed, ‘The Criminal’ plays to a great extent like one of the projects its leading man went on to produce (not least the similarly themed ‘Robbery’ (1967)), mixing a sense of raw nerve energy with dour, realistic brutality, whilst showcasing the talents of an extraordinary cast of character players.

Whatever the behind-the-scenes balance of power may have been though, Losey’s presence can still be felt, especially during the film’s prison sequences, which were shot on a vast purpose-built set modelled after the Victorian edifice of HMP Wandsworth (the genuine article was used for exteriors). Though impressively realistic in most respects, this set allows Losey - aided no doubt by cinematographer Robert Krasker, a veteran of Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’ and ‘The Third Man’ - to frame the action in suitably expressionistic, Kafkaesque fashion, dialling up the claustrophobia to an uncomfortable degree as he obsessively explores the complex power dynamics at play between the inmates and wardens.

In this respect, it would be easy to file ‘The Criminal’ away as the UK’s answer to Jules Dassin’s ‘Brute Force’ (1947) or Jacques Becker’s ‘Le Trou’ (1960). A more relevant point of comparison however might be Raoul Walsh’s classic ‘White Heat’ (1949), which is echoed here in the ‘out-and-in-and-out-again’ structure of the prison story, as well as by the steady accumulation of tension through the film, the betrayal/paranioa tropes and the intermittent outbursts of vein-popping male hysteria.

More importantly for its director perhaps, ‘The Criminal’ also shares with Walsh’s film the underlying notion that its tormented, working class anti-hero never really gets to experience true freedom, finding himself imprisoned just as much by the strictures of the ruthless socio-economic system which defines his actions on the ‘outside’ as he is by the more literal bars and truncheons which confine him on the ‘inside’.

Unpacking all that would be quite enough to keep most filmmakers busy, but Losey, being Losey, also insists on intermittently trying to punch through to the audience via some woefully self-conscious application of Brechtian distancing technique.

This can be most clearly seen during the ‘home-coming’ party which follows Bannion’s initial release from prison, when all music and sound effects suddenly cut out to announce the entrance of his estranged girlfriend Maggie (Jill Bennett). As the assembled partygoers split off to either side and observe her subsequent hysterical outburst like a bemused Greek chorus, what should rightfully be a fairly troubling, low key character exchange is instead imbued with the feel of a ‘West Side Story’-esque ritual showdown. Later in the film meanwhile, an emotionally troubled prisoner is allowed to deliver a long, introspective monologue direct to camera, staring fixedly at the lens in close up as the background shifts out of focus behind him.

In fairness to Losey, he soon found other, better ways to imbue his characters with an inner life, and even managed to incorporate these jarring techniques into his later, more formally experimental, films to great effect. Here though, surrounded by the dour (albeit exaggerated) naturalism of London’s criminal underworld, these attention-grabbing cinematic affectations just seem absurd, bordering on camp - which is frankly the last thing anyone needed, in a movie which was still predicated largely on the simple pleasures of watching Stanley Baker punch people in the face.

Speaking of which, Baker may have railed against being typecast in ‘hard man’ parts in subsequent years (three films in five years with ‘Hell’ in the title will do that for you, I suppose), but for those of us who love the hard-boiled persona he brought to British crime/noir cinema of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, rest assured - we’re pretty much at Peak Stanley with ‘The Criminal’, and it’s beautiful thing to behold, even as he’s hamstrung to some extent by the necessity of slurring his trademark Welsh baritone to attempt some semblance of an Irish accent.

Essentially, Baker lends Johnny Bannion the feel of a man who, above all else, simply wants to be alone, but is cursed to be forever surrounded by other men (and even more troublingly, women) - scheming, wheedling and generally getting in his grill, 24/7. Left to his own devices, we assume, he’d be happy to remain in his outrageously decorated London penthouse, brooding over his impressive collection of jazz LPs; but alas, it’s not to be.

Lest we think we’re dealing with some Jean Gabin-esque sensitive, aesthetically-minded gangster here however, please note that Bannion has a life size photo of a nude model pasted on the back of his bathroom door, and when he is forced to resort to violence (which, of course, is frequently), there is a pure, underhanded street-fighting nastiness to his conduct which is genuinely frightening, whether belting a guard with his hand-cuffed wrists as makes an escape from a prison van, or (in one of the movie’s highlights) reducing a pair of hulking, feckless thugs who have been assigned as his cellmates to tearful agony in a matter of seconds.

Great as he is though, Baker is in constant danger of being upstaged by the rest of the ‘The Criminal’s top drawer cast of cinematic reprobates - not least BITR hero and Losey’s fellow Brechtian, Patrick Magee, getting stuck into one of his very best screen roles as the devilish-yet-craven Prison Warden, Barrows.

Venomous to a fault, Magee builds Barrows into a terrifying and fascinating figure, plumbing depths of weird perversity which I’m 99% sure the film’s script never thought to assign to him. One minute a cowering, authoritarian jobsworth, the next a Mephistophelian provocateur, Barrows seems to be perpetually attempting to stifle his true nature as a glowering sadist, but, he scarcely ever succeeds.

He can’t help addressing his underlings with a hissed, derisive “…mister”, making it sound like the disgusting insult imaginable, whilst the film’s opening sequence finds him pushing obviously-doomed stool pigeon Kelly (Kenneth Cope) down the steel steps to the prison mess hall with all the finality of a witch-hunter lighting a pyre.

Basically, you could write a whole treatise trying to get to the bottom of what makes this gimlet-eyed cur tick, and you’d still never quite get to the bottom of it. Magee’s every gesture appears to conceal some horrible, hidden purpose, and his scenes with Baker in particular crackle with an electrifying antagonism.

Elsewhere meanwhile, British horror fans will immediately feel at home as ‘The Criminal’ opens with the heart-warming sight of Patrick Wymark (‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, ‘The Skull’) and Murray Melvin (‘The Devils’) enjoying an inevitably crooked game of poker, each looking almost impossibly shifty, and it’s likewise great to see such esteemed players as Tom Bell, Nigel Green and Rupert Davies popping up blink-and-you’ll-miss-it supporting roles. Each of these gents helps contribute to what must surely rank as one of British cinema’s most impressive gallery of villainous grotesques, creating a world so devoid of moral fortitude that Baker’s violent, self-serving antihero appears almost admirable by comparison.

For all this though, ‘The Criminal’ is also noteworthy as an example of a British film in which barely anyone on screen in actually English… well, not in the genealogically correct, WASP-centric manner which would have been recognised as such in the late 1950s, at least.

Bannion and most of his gang members are Irish, as, presumably, is Barrows, whilst the loosely allied gang (led by the affable Grégoire Aslan) who run the prison’s black market are Italian. In fact, it’s striking that, during a scene which takes place in the prison’s Roman Catholic chapel, pretty much our entire cast of characters - inmates and screws alike - are present, solemnly receiving communion!

The few ostensibly English inmates meanwhile tend to have prominent Northern accents, whilst all purpose thug ‘Clobber’ (played by Milton Reid lookalike Kenneth J. Warren, last seen around these parts in The Creeping Flesh) is Australian. As portrayed by the Jewish-American Wanamaker, the ethnicity of Bannion’s right-hand-man Carter is difficult to pin down, whilst Johnny’s girlfriend Suzanne, as played by Saad, is evidently German. In fact, the film’s the only definite, RP-enunciating southern Englishman is actually the haughty prisoner governor, marvellously played by Noel Willman (‘Kiss of the Vampire’, The Reptile).

A near-comically stern yet weak-willed exemplar of English good manners, everything in the tiny world of the governor’s office appears perfectly symmetrical. He is mildly perturbed when a dish of arrow-root biscuits accompanies his morning tea-tray (a cringing lackey apologises for the lack of digestives), seemingly oblivious to the violence, chaos and rampant corruption which define the defiantly heterogeneous community of incarcerated troublemakers beyond his door. 

Even more surprising is the notable presence of black characters in ‘The Criminal’. At the outset of the film, one of Bannion’s cellmates is a West-Indian - though seemingly not fluent in English, he seems a trusted ally nonetheless, communicating through ritual chants of “ok, sailor, ok”, along with the occasional patted shoulder - whilst, delightfully, Johnny’s cellblock also boasts a Sir Lancelot-esque calypso singer, who strums his guitar in the canteen, improvising new lyrics to reflect the prison’s latest dramas, in what seems like a homage to Jacques Tourneur’s ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ (1943). (1)

Elsewhere, during the racetrack scene, the camera briefly zeroes on a black man decked out in some kind of far-out witch doctor get-up (perhaps a real life hawker or busker of some kind?), whilst at Johnny’s home-coming party, we can even see a fully-fledged black gangster strutting his stuff in the background. (Probably not something the Krays or their bigoted ilk would have stood for, needless to say.)

Though not exactly the most progressive representations of black Britons ever seen on screen, the very presence of these characters in an era in which non-whites were generally entirely absent from popular cinema feels like a deliberate statement on the part of the filmmakers. Were they perhaps attempting to portray the criminal class as a kind of loose coalition of oppressed minorities, or just trying, however haphazardly, to provide a more realistic portrayal of working class life in the post-Wind Rush era than had usually been seen on screen up to this point..? Who knows.

Music too contributes hugely to ‘The Criminal’s overall power. In what became a recurring trope in Losey’s films, diegetic music is everywhere - not only in the myriad of songs, chants and rhymes through which the inmates communicate during the prison sequences, but also in Johnny’s prominently displayed jazz collection. As is almost inevitable for an early ‘60s Losey film in fact, UK jazz luminary Johnny Dankworth provides an exquisitely nuanced score, even as viewers are far more likely to remember the contribution made to the soundtrack by his better half, the equally ubiquitous Cleo Laine.

A striking, Nina Simone-ish, near a-cappella blues, Laine’s ‘Prison Ballad (Thieving Boy)’ plays over the film’s opening and closing sequences, and indeed is reprised a number of times in-between. You could accuse the filmmakers of over-playing this track, were it not for the fact that its haunting, icy simplicity proves so astoundingly beautiful that it stops us in out tracks each time it is heard.

Evoking a contemplative, melancholic air which eventually colours the entire film, Laine’s ballad allows this brutal, boot-to-the-face drama to veer, momentarily at least, toward the kind of fatalistic, stylised noir being explored at around the same time by directors in France and Japan.

Would it be too much of a stretch to claim that the snow-covered, rural locations in which the film’s predictably grim final act takes place reminded me of Truffaut’s ‘Tirez Sur Le Pianiste’ / ‘Shoot the Piano Player’, which premiered one month after ‘The Criminal’?

Probably, but nonetheless, that feeling is in there somewhere, helping Losey’s opus slog its way into viewers’ affections with a steely determination worthy of Baker himself. Though overlooked by critics upon release, ‘The Criminal’ now stands out as one of the strongest entries in the cycle of late 50s/early 60s British noirs within which its star proved such a defining presence, remaining sharp, brutal and disconcerting enough to make vicars, governors social workers choke on their arrowroot biscuits, however many decades down the line.



(1) Hearteningly, Tommy Eyrtle, playing the calypso singer, went on to enjoy a prolific career in British film and TV, notably performing his own composition ‘Man Smart (Woman Smarter)’ in the 1965 ‘Dangerman’ episode ‘Man on the Beach’. Prince Monolulu - presumably playing the un named West Indian prisoner, although he is credited as “himself” on IMDB(?!) - had less luck however. Born in the Danish Virgin Islands in 1881, he died in London in 1965, his only credit subsequent to ‘The Criminal’ being an appearance on ‘The Ken Dodd Show’ the same year.

Saturday 21 August 2021

Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba

It goes without saying that I was incredibly sad to learn on Thursday that the great Sonny Chiba (‘Chiba-chan’ to many of his fans in Japan) has passed away at the age of 82, following a ten-day battle with covid-19.

Normally when a noteworthy figure passes away at a reasonably advanced age, we’re inclined to fall back on clichés of the “he had a good run” variety, but in Chiba’s case, it instead just seems heart-breaking that a man who remained so vital and energetic throughout his life, hitting his ninth decade still fighting fit and looking far younger, should meet such a miserable end. A terrible reminder (lest we needed one) of what a curse this damned virus continues to be.

Trying to summarise the entirety of Chiba’s career in film and TV is a daunting task. From his early days as a fresh-faced juvenile supporting player at Toei, he swiftly worked his way up to heroic leading roles through the ‘60s, appearing in that capacity in such delightful sci-fi/monster romps as ‘Golden Bat’ [‘Ogon Batto’] and the U.S. co-production ‘Terror Beneath the Sea’ (both 1966).

Ahoy mateys: Chiba in the early ‘60s.

Even in these early films, the energy and charisma he brought to the screen was formidable, but it was towards the end of the decade that, alongside an inevitable parallel career as a supporting player in the studio’s ninkyo yazuka dramas, before he began to reinvent himself as a martial arts / action star, soon cementing himself as Japan’s foremost exponent of screen-fighting and stunt work in a long series of increasingly outrageous karate, crime and exploitation movies.

Outside of the generally ultra-violent / adult-orientated movies he made for Toei, millions across Japan also soon knew him as the star of the somewhat more family friendly ‘Key Hunter’ and ‘The Bodyguard’ TV series, and as the founder of the self-explanatory Japan Action Club, through which he attempted to develop the nation’s stunt performers and choreographers to a level which would allow them to compete with Hong Kong’s supremacy in the field, mentoring such stars as Hiroyuki Sanada and the ever-incredible Etsuko Shihomi in the process.

On the other side of the Pacific meanwhile, Chiba gained an entirely entirely audience, becoming an unlikely American grindhouse icon after the fledging New Line Cinema, ever on the look-out for a “new Bruce Lee”, recut and redubbed Shigehiro Ozawa’s staggeringly excessive karate/gore exploiter ‘Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken’ [‘Sudden Attack! Killer Fist’] in 1974, transforming it into ‘The Street Fighter’.

Arguably featuring a more extreme approach to on-screen violence than had been seen on U.S. screens up that point (excluding perhaps the unrated gore movies of HG Lewis and his imitators), ‘The Street Fighter’ predictably proved a box office smash in inner-city theatres, prompting New Line to repeat the procedure with just about every one of Chiba’s equally crazed early ‘70s pictures they could get their hands on, as well as Shihomi’s signature ‘Onna Hissatsu Ken’ [‘Sister Street Fighter’] series and sundry other Toei product besides.

Back home meanwhile, Chiba had repeatedly proved his thespian chops in a somewhat more serious context by this point, continuing to take supporting / second lead roles in the hard-edged jitsuroku yakuza films which dominated Toei’s A-picture output through the early ‘70s, generally playing to type as wild / out-of-control ‘human dynamo’ type characters - most memorably perhjaps in ‘Hiroshima Death Match’, the excellent second instalment of Kinji Fukasaku’s epochal ‘Battles Without Honour and Humanity’ [‘Jingi Naki Tatakai’] series (1973).

 Chiba with Meiko Kaji in ‘Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler’ (1972)

The respect gained from these more quasi-realistic yakuza roles led (or so I’ve always tended to assume) to Chiba subsequently establishing himself as a stalwart presence in the succession of more ambitious, ‘blockbuster’-style projects which came to dominate the Japanese box office once the increasingly unsustainable ‘production line’ ethos of the major studios more-or-less ground to a halt as the industry contracted in the latter half of the ‘70s.

Considerably lightening up his hard-boiled image, Chiba switched back to his ‘60s ‘heroic lead’ persona to play the driver of the titular shinkansen in Junya Satô’s ‘Speed’-inspiring epic ‘Bullet Train’ [‘Shinkansen Daibakuha’] in 1975, before moving on to such big budget productions as Fukasaku’s ‘Star Wars’-inspired ‘Message From Space’ (1978), Kôsei Saitô’s jaw-droppingly macho time travel battlefest ‘Sengoku Jieitai’ [‘G.I. Samurai’] (1979), and, most significantly, playing a long succession of brooding patriarchs and aging master swordsmen in the series of historical / fantasy epics which more or less defined commercial Japanese cinema through the early ‘80s, beginning with Fukasaku’s ‘Yagyu Clan Conspiracy’ [aka ‘Shogun’s Samurai’] in 1978.

Reprising his role as real life figure Jûbei Yagyû (‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ fans take note) through several further movies and TV spin-offs, Chiba also portrayed legendary swordsman Hattori Hanzô in several further TV series - by which point I think it’s probably safe to say his place in the popular culture of a new generation was pretty well defined.

In subsequent decades, he made a speciality of the scene-stealing cameo, regularly turning up to bring some gravitas to grizzled, former hard man yakuza / samurai roles in everything from humble V-cinema action flicks in the ‘90s to ill-starred Hong Kong co-productions, epic historical/fantasy reboots in the early ‘00s and - inevitably - Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ movies, all whilst also keeping to plates spinning vis-à-vis his presence as a much-loved media personality, martial arts/fitness guru and general elder statesman of Japanese commercial cinema.

And, all this of course barely scratches the surface. I wish I had the capacity to try to do it all justice. For a wider appreciation of Chiba’s contribution to cinema, I’d recommend spending some quality time with the estimable Sketches of Chiba blog, and, right here on BITR, why not have a look at my creaky old 2013 review of one of his earliest action vehicles, 1970’s Yakuza Deka: The Assassin, or the trailer gallery for one of his craziest and most essential movies (a film so extraordinary in fact that I found it impossible to review in a more conventional manner), 1974’s inimitable Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope.

More Chiba tribute content may or may not follow soon, time allowing, but for now, to quote the retitling of New Line’s U.S. version of 1973’s ‘Bodigaado Kiba’: Viva Chiba!