Friday, 9 December 2011

Villain (1971)

Villain is a violent British gangster flick from the early 1970s. Set in and around London it's a classic tale of the decline and fall of East End gang leader and hard man Vic Dakin. Dakin's normal racket is blackmail and with the help of his cohort Wolfe he entices the aristocracy and members of parliament into ready made honey traps. However with the police on his tail and a rat in his gang, Dakin runs the gauntlet in organising a big money snatch on a security van. Vic has to compromise his plans by including a rival gang boss in the scheme and when the robbery is botched he's forced on the run, turning on his allies as the net closes in around him.

Villain is made from the same mould as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday although truth be told, it's probably not as good as either. It doesn't have the style of Get Carter or the political relevance of The Long Good Friday. What it does have going for it is a snarling and seething performance from Richard Burton as Vic Dakin. Throughout the 60s Burton was one of the biggest names in cinema, and one of Britain's most celebrated film stars. His fame had as much to do with his acting skills as it did his notorious drinking habits and stormy marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. Along with other such luminaries as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole, Burton raised hell on every film set from Hollywood Hills to Pinewood Studios.

But by 1971, his star was on the wain. The iconic lead from "Night of The Iguana" and "The Spy Who Came in from The Cold" had resorted to making a series of big budget flops  with his real life co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Boom! was an overblown pretentious drama and The Comedians, although based on good source material by Graham Greene, was a mistake. The pair had bounced and riffed against each other drunkenly in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf but for the rest of the 60s their private and screen lives bled into one another and the pair lived and extravagant lifestyle of hangovers and public spats.

The role of Vik Dakin is quite obviously based on Ronnie Kray (with a touch of James Cagney in White Heat) and it lets Burton show off his brutal side. The violence is implicit right at the start when he uses a disloyal croupier as a punchbag before slicing off his tongue with a cut-throat blade for talking too much. The blood drips from the window that the dying man is hanging from and Burton quips "bleedin' pigeons". The next scene shows him returning home after a night out with the boys to his elderly and much loved mother who he dotes upon. The mother fixation is another link to The Krays, as is Burton's resonant East End accent (with a hint of the valleys peeking through) and his and his gang's dapper attire. Velvet suits, big ties, heavy leather overcoats and silk cravats and hankies abound. Dakin may not be as controlled as Michael Cain/Jack Carter but he's on a par in the cruelty and style awards. Also, no one looks more menacing and camp with a stocking over his head as Richard Burton.

Apart from his mother, the only other relationship Dakin has is an aggressive semi sexual one with Ian Mcshane's pimp and blackmailer Wolfe. It's an intriguing angle of the movie. Dakin obviously fancies Woolf and the only way he can express his desire in their main bedroom scene together is with his fists before the screen fades to black. Mcshane plays Wolfe with an easy charm, like a delinquent Lovejoy but attracted to and by both men and women. There's nothing tender about their liaison, in fact it's a very sadistic affair with Mcshane the submissive to Burton's threatening sugar daddy.

Alongside Burton and Mcshane, Joss Ackland gives a sterling and weaselly performance as Dakin's focus of hatred Ed Lowis, constantly sucking on chalk tablets to settle his bilious stomach ulcer. Donald Sindon is a sleazy presence as a dodgy MP and Del Henney, who starred in Sam Pekinpah's Straw Dogs the same year, gives it some menace as thug Webb.

Curiously Villain was scripted by comedy writers Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais, with American actor Al Letieri (who specialised in playing gangsters himself) also getting a writing credit. Adapted from James Barlow's novel The Burdon of Proof, the script fairly crackles along with Burton getting to say some classic dialogue and one liners, all through his death mask grin. The film was directed by Michael Tuchner who has a filmography as long as your arm in television on IMDB. And Villain does has a very TV movie feel to it with low budget production values and a very quick and simple filming style. Even the claret, which flows freely, has a very ketchup look to it.

Unfortunately Villain did nothing to resurrect Burton's career and, bar his award winning role in Equus, the 70s was a lean patch for him (The Medusa Touch anyone?). Still he's at his very best as Vic Dakin and Villain is definitely worth a watch for Burton strutting his stuff and putting the frighteners on those burkes who lack respect - "Respect! Respect! You don't know what it is. Unless you're Vic Dakin. Tell 'im, someone. Tell him!"

Watch the whole movie here...