Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Losey's chequered career, blighted by the upheavals of Hollywood's communist witch-hunts,
saw him make films by turn in the USA, England and Europe. The uneven path of his career
was matched by the variable nature of his work, his oeuvre including both later disasters
like The Assassination Of Trotsky (1972) and Steaming (1985) as well as such
films as Eve (1962). The Criminal marked the start of his most fruitful English
phase - although many have had good words to say too about his previous film Blind Date
(1959) also with Stanley Baker - as the left-wing director worked with increasing success in
exile, forging a mutually amenable creative relationship with the Welsh actor. It was Baker's
idea to bring Losey to The Criminal, a hardboiled story of convict life, racetrack
robbery and gangland loyalties. Baker's no-nonsense screen persona hid art house sensibilities,
a fact judged quickly by Losey and brought to the surface with increasing regularity as the
actor went on to appear in the aforementioned Eve, as well as Accident (1967).
Previously, Baker had made an impression in British cinema playing hard men, appearing in
such films as Hell Drivers (1957) as well as Hammer's success Hell Is A City
(1959) made just before this. In that he played a moody police officer, tossed between two
women, in a plot that involved betting, theft and a trail of money. All of these elements
appeared in The Criminal too, a story in which Baker crossed the moral tracks for
the role of Johnny Bannion, gang leader, with a sure thing lined up outside prison. "Same
old Johnny" is a refrain heard a few times in the film, a man who cannot be reformed or
change his ways. Fortunately for the audience, it's the same Baker too, playing a tough,
unbending crime boss still with a characteristic suggestion of emotional vulnerability at
As written by Jimmy Sangster and Alun Owen the plot is brisk moving, with its fair share of stereotypical elements, although the bleak ending is more of a surprise. Attention to detail (including a superb Victorian prison set) and the fact that Baker's character was modelled after the legendary and flamboyant underworld figure Albert Dimes, who acted as an advisor during production, ensure that the film is a distinct notch or two above comparable crime dramas of the day. Add to this Losey's drive and confidence in staging the action, and the result is as memorable in its way as was another, notable, American-directed British crime classic made a decade earlier: Dassin's Night And The City. That too featured an ultimately doomed central character, bound by the machinations of the underworld, struggling against both system and the combine. Losey's film is less noir-ish but similarly offers its central characters little chance to escape from the inevitability of their actions. As critics like Dan Callahan have noted, The Criminal's pessimism signals, "a darkening of Losey's consciousness" as the projects he took on from now increasingly became more self conscious and complex. Indications of this are a heightening of stylistic control, such as the effective use of long takes to place characters within a detailed environment, one or two startlingly expressionistic moments, as well as incidents of true theatricality (at one point the director darkens the background to focus on a prisoner's monologue of woe).
There's a written accounting for Bannion's last escape from prison, driven by the threats to his new girlfriend Susanne (Margit Saad) slipped into his hand as he leaves: "1 riot, 1 transfer, 1 fast black car: �40,000" - this stark tally for criminal activity is also a bill for the lives depending upon the amount's security. They're figures as precise, and uncompromising, as the days and years lags spend in jail or calculating their early release. Bannion's own existence is predicated around such reckoning - either the time he admits spent in his cell counting the minutes which make up the 12 hours before exercise each day, the packet of money placed in his hands by Mike Carter (a suitably slimy turn by Sam Wanamaker) on his initial release, or the anticipated take from the race-course job. Of course some things cannot be so easily balanced up, notably matters of the heart, and it's the irrational nature of these other matters - either through the betrayal of his plans by his estranged girlfriend Maggie (Jill Bennett), or Bannion's growing affection for Susanne, which so complicates his life.
Losey demonstrates the fractured nature of Bannion's emotional life, as well as the freewheeling environment in which he finds himself once free of prison, by one celebrated shot in particular. Seen through a kaleidoscope as Maggie arrives at his welcome home party, Bannion's perceptions of the real world will be shown just as misleading as any optical effect seen within a toy. Back amongst fellow crooks and lovers, he has returned to a precarious future amongst his own kind. In films like The Servant (1963), or Accident, the outsider Losey would observe and deal with the British class structure in a notably unsentimental way. In The Criminal, elements of this dispassionate dissection are already in evidence in odd touches: for instance the liberal, middle class governor of the prison, who mislays his New Statesman; or Bannion bringing in a genteel piano tuner, the surreal tinkling of whom is in ironic counterpoint to the criminal conspiracy forming in the next room. Losey is keen to suggest a particular social milieu, whether it's the groups interacting within prison or the presentation of Bannion's apartment, cheesy décor, sunray lamps, sliding doors and all. Underpinning this attention to detail is a memorable score by Johnny Dankworth, coming to the project immediately after his impressive work on Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960). It's Cleo Laine singing a mournful song ("All my sadness/ and all my joy/ comes from loving/ a thieving boy") who opens the film on the right atmospheric note, whilst music as whole plays an important part in many of the scenes. Incidentally, Dankworth is still at work in the genre, having recently provided the score for Gangster No.1 (2000).
Upon its initial release The Criminal's bleak ending drew especial praise from critics. Pursued by former friends, clutching a religious medal, Bannion flees bleeding into an empty winter landscape, screaming at girlfriend to let him be. Losey and his crew utilised a fortuitous cold spell to place Bannion's final scene in a frozen field, shooting some elements from overhead, creating a stark intensity that is startling. Of course this final, chilly landscape is also an apt metaphor for Bannion's own world of immorality and selfishness, where very little of any warmth is permitted to grow.
The Region 1 disc is the original 96-minute British version, in correct ratio, picture quality excellent. A shorter version, re-titled The Concrete Jungle, was released in the USA at 86 minutes. One can only imagine that this removed some of Losey's careful work with mise-en-scene through the incidentals, which make his complete film so effective. Extended biographies and chapter stops are the only extras here, the paucity of which makes one wish there had been opportunity to also include Losey's 29-minute short colour film A Man On The Beach (1955) - a "peculiar and atmospheric" caper film centring on a casino robbery, also scripted by Jimmy Sangster. What is provided by Anchor Bay though, is well worth the modest outlay. It would be criminal to miss it.