Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) is a hardened criminal of considerable repute who’s about to receive early release from a lengthy prison term. The film begins on his last day inside, and shows him to be confident, decisive and in control — not only of his fellow inmates, but of the undermanned and unmotivated guards as well. But as soon as Bannion walks through the gates, it’s as if a switch has been flipped. He’s edgy and needlessly aggressive when his old running mate, Mike Carter (Sam Wanamaker), comes to greet him. He churlishly spoils his homecoming party when his uninvited ex-girlfriend, Maggie (Jill Bennett), arrives and starts pushing his buttons. Bannion has been inside too long to be able to quickly reorient himself to being outside.
This existential discomfort also pervades Bannion’s professional life. He further alienates Carter and other partners in crime while pulling off a racetrack robbery based on information from a former cellmate. The heist is successful, but Bannion balks at paying the new, exorbitant rate being charged by the money-changer. He hides the takings where no one can find them and, worse, commits the cardinal sin of using some of the stolen money to buy a bauble for his latest conquest, Suzanne (Margit Saad).
|A stoolie's fate.
In short order, Bannion is sold out by the jealous Maggie and the duplicitous Carter, the latter eager to supplant him in the criminal hierarchy. Bannion is duly hustled back to prison, and quickly realizes that things have changed. Having transgressed underworld codes, Bannion is no longer top dog behind bars, and encounters nothing but betrayal and confrontation. Carter works behind the scenes to pressure Bannion to turn over the money: he has Suzanne kidnapped and arranges for Bannion to receive a working over from a couple of brutal inmates.
Frank Saffron (Gregoire Aslan), a high-ranking gang boss who is now top man in the jail, eventually convinces a reluctant Bannion to cooperate. Saffron orders up a prison riot, but organizes it so that it appears Bannion has helped the guards to quash it. Bannion’s pariah status necessitates a prison transfer to ensure his safety, during which Carter’s men effect his escape. Despite the odds stacked against him, Bannion still thinks he can have his cake and eat it, not realizing he’s in over his head and that all his dreams are about to be permanently deferred.
|The savage is loose.
The Criminal marks a transition between Joseph Losey’s genre works of the 1950s and his art films of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s the movie in which Losey (arguably) more or less “became” Losey. It also represents a milestone in the development of the British crime film. The tension between its realist narrative impulses (courtesy of Alun Owen’s razor-sharp script) and Losey’s intoxicating mix of cinéma vérité camerawork, Eisensteinian montage and Brechtian flourish began a process of genre transformation that would reverberate throughout modernist successors like Kaleidoscope (1966) and Performance (1970).
The film was likewise a key one for Stanley Baker, whose character (a nod to Dave Bannion in The Big Heat?) finds himself increasingly marginalized in a newly treacherous underworld, and fighting a losing battle to retain a sense of control in or out of prison. With his raptor-like visage (fellow Welshman and friend Richard Burton described him as a “terrifying old boot … with a face like a clenched fist”), Baker projected a sense of danger unequalled in British cinema at the time, Sean Connery included. (Baker was, in fact, offered the role of 007 in 1961.) However, the actor’s brutish persona masked a latent sensitivity, one that Losey was quick to exploit. Baker delivers a powerful and nuanced performance, full of unbridled aggression, but counterpoised by hints of self-doubt and vulnerability. He would deliver equally accomplished work in the subsequent Losey films Eva (1962) and Accident (1967).
|Corruption in uniform.
Script and direction present a gritty and realistic portrayal of prison life, and proffer some telling sociological observations about how society runs on both sides of the law. But it’s primarily a character study, which, to its credit, isn’t confined to the leads. Owun’s script generously invests a dozen or so supporting characters with stories of their own, which adds immeasurably to the film’s verisimilitude and emotional impact. The crowning touch is Robert Krasker’s beautifully harsh black-and-white photography, which gives the film a palpable sense of place and texture. The most memorable shot comes at the end, after Bannion has escaped from Carter and makes a desperate attempt to recover the money he’s buried under a frozen, snow-covered field. As Carter’s jackals converge, Krasker frames a bird’s eye perspective that pitilessly observes and punctuates Bannion’s ultimate nullity. While not a perfect film, Losey, Baker and their collaborators make The Criminal a thematic arabesque of corruption, deceit and despair.
|Bannion and Carter no longer speak the same language.
Johnny Bannion likes the high life: swank bachelor pad, posh birds and lots of hot money in his hands. He’s even got a portable sunlamp with which he tans himself while lying in bed. This aspect of his character anticipates the materialist attitude that would sweep Britain in a few years time. Yet he’s as hard as nails and without pity towards those who cross him. Bannion is old school, prone to doing things his way and brooking no interference, putting him at odds with the changing face of British criminality. Baker plays him with feral intensity, and in fact modeled the character on Albert Dimes, a notorious underworld gangster and one of Baker’s drinking mates.
Mike Carter represents the criminal as organization man: deferential to his superiors, condescending to his subordinates, quick to betray a friend. Carter is basically devoid of character and human feeling, and willingly sells his soul on behalf of the corporation: “We belong to a proper setup. We’re important, yes, but things would go on without us.”
Patrick Magee plays Barrows, the prison warden who runs the cell block with an iron hand, but who knows when to let the convicts let off much-needed steam. He’s deeply religious, and becomes visibly emotional while attending chapel services. But he’s also a bit of a sadist, turning a blind eye to a stoolie’s beating, and is quite probably corrupt as well, conveniently placing Bannion in a cell with his would-be assailants — just where Carter wants him.
Most of the film’s violence takes place inside the prison. The thrashing of the prison informer is memorably filmed with expressionistic lighting and editing, and rather chillingly plays out against the collective cell block singing of the familiar children’s refrain “nick-nack paddywhack.” During Bannion’s second incarceration, he’s put into a cell with a couple of intimidating Irish thugs planted there to make him reveal where the money is. Bannion regards them contempt. “If you think a couple of shebeen rats like you could frighten me, c’mon … and learn.” He then proceeds to teach them both a painful lesson. The prison riot is the film’s big set piece, a stunning tour de force that evokes a nightmarish scene like something from the 16th century Bedlam mental hospital.
Quantock: “You were big inside.”
Johnny Bannion: “Oh, yeah. Big enough to be three in a cell all through last year’s stinking summer.”
Snipe [as a prison stoolie is mercilessly beaten]: “I hope he doesn’t mark his face.”
Johnny Bannion: “Clobber’s a neat worker.”
Mike Carter: “Your sort doesn’t fit into an organization. So we can’t have you running about messing things up, now can we, Johnny?”
Director: Joseph Losey; screenplay: Alun Owen, Jimmy Sangster; producers: Nat Cohen, Stuart Levy; music: Johnny Dankworth; cinematography: Robert Krasker; editing: Reginald Mills
Stanley Baker (Johnny Bannion); Sam Wanamaker (Mike Carter), Patrick Magee (Barrows), Margit Saad (Suzanne), Gregoire Aslan (Frank Saffron), Kenneth Warren (Clobber), Jill Bennett (Maggie), John Van Eyssen (Formby), Patrick Wymark (Sol), Brian Phelan (Pauly Larkin), Paul Stassino (Alfredo Fanucci), Tom Bell (Flynn), Neil McCarthy (O’Hara), Nigel Green (Ted), Murray Melvin (Antlers)