I had no idea that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had been such prolific producers of feature films prior to their career in TV sitcoms. I grew up in time for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Porridge and then Auf Wiedersehen Pet, but it’s only latterly I’ve caught their films such as To Catch a Spy (Kirk Douglas and Marlene Jobert spy caper), the magnificent Otley (Tom Courtney and Romy Schneider Notting Hill spy caper) and Jokers (Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed crime caper…). These films are patchy but ambitious and attempt to create very British products both in terms of location and humour.
With Villain they turned their sights on real crime and the huge impact celebrity criminals like the Kray twins had on British society even after they had both been locked up for good. They enlisted Richard Burton to play a crime lord along their lines, this one apparently brought up in the East End via South Wales with an accent flitting about somewhere between the two. In all other respects Burton is perfectly believable as the hardman with a soft spot for his mum and young Ian McShane. For the period it’s perhaps a juxtaposition to have a gay-hearted gangster but Ronnie’s sexuality was never a barrier to his free expression of violent intent.
|Wolfie and Vic|
Interestingly, the story was based on the book Burden of Proof by James Barlow, and a treatment by the American actor Al Lettieri, a 'tough-guy' in films such as The Godfather and who had actual connections with the New York Gambino Family. This coupled with some crisp dialogue and strong performances – what a cast list - ads a level of believability that leaves this film not that far behind the more stylised Get Carter and the under-rated The Reckoning.
Burton is Vic Dakin, master of hard-won turf in the East End – the location shots are a great window on those streets 48 years ago – and is coolly in control using violence to control the streets and anyone unfortunate enough to descend into his demi-monde. The opening sequence shows a well-to-do business man being violently taken to task and ending up dangling from his Knightsbridge window ledge with his girlfriend in hysterics.
|Gerald looks to make new connections with Wolfie's friend Venetia|
Vic’s left-hand man is Wolfe Lissner (Ian McShane) who has a way with the ladies and procures the required talent. Wolfie’s smart and does what he must but his attempt to lead a life of his own with girlfriend Venetia (Fiona Lewis) is compromised by his being the apple of Vic’s eye too, still, he just about manages the balance.
Vic’s other henchmen are well cast Tony Selby, cockney-dubbed as Duncan, Del Henney – always believable in these roles - as Webb and John Hallam as Terry. You wouldn’t want to cross any of them.
|Del and Tony|
Vic has always relied on his mother to keep whatever sanity he has and, whilst she seems oblivious to his profession, Mrs Dakin (Cathleen Nesbitt) is of failing health and this starts to undermine her son’s judgement. He gets approached buy a man called Brown (James Cossins), a disaffected employee with secrets to sell concerning the payroll where he works but this is on the patch of rival boss, Frank Fletcher (T. P. McKenna).
|Colin Welland, Nigel Davenport and Ian McShane|
If the plot has one major flaw it’s that these two bosses would get involved in the actual robbery, especially given the power Vic wields in the straight world… but, as his mother passes away and he becomes emotionally, as well as physically-dependent on Wolfie, he is intent on proving himself.
Will the job go as plan and will there be honour amongst thieves? Events play out with well-crafted action sequences, all shot on rugged locations in London which looks impressively careworn in 1970 as the cops and robbers’ career around in top of the range Rovers.
|Joss Ackland, TP McKenna, John Hallam and Richard Burton|
Fiona Lewis is, as always, highly-watchable – the very model of a theatrically-trained, modern player amongst so many greats of the previous generation. It is a superb cast throughout. Plus, there's great motors, lots of them; Jags, Rovers, Fords... all high performance and driven at speed! Yes, I am shallow.
|Fiona is highly watchable...|
The film pops up on Talking Pictures and on a 2007 Studiocanal DVD available from Amazon etc.