Sunday 25 February 2018

Film: Spivs, serial killers and a few diamond geezers

Married to the mob: Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren star in 'The Long Good Friday'
Married to the mob: Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren star in 'The Long Good Friday'

Paul Whitington

Tom Hardy has been widely acclaimed as one of the most talented actors of his generation, but producers and studios haven't always found it easy to cast him. The makers of Legend, which opens here next week, have attempted to solve this problem by casting him twice - as both Reggie and Ronnie Cray

A pair of spivvy lunatics from Bethnal Green, the Cray twins rose to prominence in the early 1960s and remain London's most-celebrated criminals. Robbers, racketeers, murderers and arsonists, Reggie and Ronnie became celebrities in the mid-1960s while running a West End nightclub in which they mixed with celebrities like Barbara Windsor and Diana Dors.

But they were better known in London's underworld for their robust approach to conflict resolution, which apparently involved nailing opponents to snooker tables and so forth. They were finally arrested in 1968, convicted of two murders and spent the rest of their lives behind bars.

Their lurid tale is told in Legend, which is scripted and directed by Brian Helgeland, and Tom Hardy does a bold job of playing two twins who might have been identical but had very different personalities.

Violent and gritty, Legend takes its place in the very distinctive traditions of the British crime drama. From the very start, British crime films differed sharply from their slicker and glossier American counterparts, favouring a grubbier and more realistic approach. Somehow, criminals never seemed glamorous in British thrillers, which as a consequence were often more believable and interesting than Hollywood equivalents.

Before he went to Hollywood to reinvent the American thriller, Alfred Hitchcock made some fine crime dramas in London. One of the more obscure but most interesting is Young and Innocent, a chilling and efficient 1937 drama about a young man who becomes implicated in the murder of a famous actress.

When the body of Christine Clay is found washed up on the beach of a sleepy English seaside resort, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is seen running from the scene, and it later transpires the dead woman had left him a fortune in her will. Case closed, you would have thought, nut Tisdall insists he's innocent and, with the help of a policeman's daughter (Nova Pilbeam) sets out to prove it.

Hitchcock's film ended with a marvellous and elaborate crane shot. It was seedy, and seamy.

The mood turned even darker in the post-war period, as a supposedly victorious but exhausted and traumatised Britain struggled to reinvent itself. This sombre time was captured perfectly by Brighton Rock (1947), the Boulting brothers' masterful adaptation of Graham Greene's novel. The late Richard Attenborough starred as Pinkie Brown, a vicious Brighton gangster who murders a rival but is seen doing it by an innocent young woman. He courts her to cover his tracks, and eventually decides to kill her. But his Catholic conscience won't let him be.

Basil Dearden's 1950 Ealing film The Blue Lamp pitched an avuncular London Bobby against a ruthless new breed of criminal. PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is about to retire when he's called to the scene of a robbery at a local cinema. There he's confronted by a nervy youth (a callow Dirk Bogarde) brandishing a pistol. Dixon tries to talk him down, but the boy panics, and shoots.

Cop killing was a shocking subject for British audiences in the early 1950s, and Ealing Studios weren't about to let Bogarde get away with it. He was hunted down by Dixon's colleagues with the help of plucky locals, a move typical of a studio that liked to take a cosy, sentimental view of British society. In Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), even crooks and gangsters were unthreatening and inept, sometimes vaguely lovable.

The reality, of course, was very different, as 1960s crime films began to demonstrate. Hell is a City is a curious and sometimes overlooked thriller. Made in 1960 by Hammer, it was inspired by the pulp noir movies then being pumped out in Hollywood, but shifted that brash sub-genre to the salty environs of Manchester.

Charismatic Welsh hard man Stanley Baker played Harry Martineau, a jaded police inspector on the trail of an old school friend who's now a bank robber and wanted for murder. A hard-hitting film, Hell is a City was not very politically correct. At one point Martineau, who's fighting with his neglected wife, tells her "why don't you justify your existence by having a baby or two?". Oh dear.

The Frightened City (1961) was not quite as grim, but equally pulpy, and starred a young Sean Connery as a wily burglar who's drawn into a seedy West End extortion racket. In this film, 60s London seemed a bewildering, dangerous place, though rather less so in the beautifully made and enduringly popular 1960 heist film The League of Gentlemen. Jack Hawkins played a crusty Lieutenant Colonel who enlists a group of disgraced British Army officers to carry out a daring raid on a London City bank.

It was witty stuff, wonderfully acted, but in 1969 The League of Gentlemen would be eclipsed by the best British heist caper of them all. Though mainly set in Turin, The Italian Job caught the swagger of swinging 60s London, and starred Michael Caine as a Cockney gangster who assembles an expert gang of drivers and a fleet of Mini Coopers to steal a stash of gold bars.

The Italian Job has long since embedded itself in British popular culture. England football fans still occasionally sing one of the songs from it, and you know what a tasteful and discerning bunch they are.

Alfred Hitchcock returned to London in 1972 to make a compelling but disturbing late thriller. In some respects, Frenzy was a typical Hitchcock movie: a young man called Blaney (Jon Finch) is wrongly accused of being a serial killer who's been targeting young women in the city. What was different about Frenzy was the tone: it was darker and grimmer than anything else Hitchcock had made, but it's very good, and often overlooked.

In perhaps his finest role, the late Bob Hoskins was totally convincing as a pugnacious London gang boss in The Long Good Friday (1980). Harold Shand is going places, but all bets are off when he falls foul of the IRA. It's an old-fashioned gangster movie, of its time but a lot of fun, and a young Pierce Brosnan pops up playing an IRA gunman.

By the 1980s, many of London's best-known gangsters were hiding out on the Costa Del Sol, and Stephen Frears' absorbing low-key 1984 drama The Hit starred Terrence Stamp as a mobster who gave up his colleagues in exchange for immunity 10 years ago. He's now living the high life in Spain, but knows it's only a matter of time before his old life catches up with him, which it does in the shape of John Hurt's gloomy hitman.

In the late 1990s, young film-makers like Guy Ritchie combined the reassuring tropes of British crime movies with the wry humour and extreme violence of Quentin Tarantino. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Ritchie gave us salty tours of a contemporary London populated in equal measure by diamond geezers and maniacs. In some ways, his work was reassuringly familiar, in others not at all.

This British-Tarantino theme was further explored by films like Sexy Beast (2000), and Gangster No. 1 (2000), the latter an incredibly violent but witty thriller written by the late Irish screenwriter Johnny Ferguson.

In recent times British crime movie directors have sought to breathe new life into classic sub-genres like the prison drama (The Escapist) and heist movie (Welcome to the Punch).

But Ben Wheatley has produced perhaps the most interesting British crime movie of the last decade or so. And in ways, Down Terrace (2009) encapsulates all that's best about British crime films.

Father and son maniacs Bill and Karl have just managed to avoid long prison sentences on a technicality, and are now interested in finding out who grassed them up.

So a steady stream of associates and ne'er do wells visit their terraced house where they drink tea, munch biscuits and usually end up getting murdered.

It's surreal, funny and very, very English.

Pure class: Get Carter

Critics were horrified by the violence and venality of Mike Hodge's crime film when it first appeared in 1971. Grey, grim and relentlessly unpleasant, it starred Michael Caine as a Newcastle-born gangster who's rapidly climbing through London's underworld when he's called home to attend his brother's funeral. As soon as he gets there, Jack Carter becomes convinced that someone killed his sibling, and begins swaggering around the city knocking heads together to find out who did it.

Considered shockingly violent and nihilistic for its time, Get Carter was a huge risk for its star Michael Caine, who up till then had always played roles that included a strong element of charm. There was nothing charming about Jack Carter, who'll stop at nothing to get his way, and even seems to enjoy inflicting pain on his enemies. But Caine was quite brilliant as him, and Mike Hodge's film is now recognised as one of the truly great crime thrillers, a lean and mean revenge drama that grabs your attention early and never lets go of it. Britt Ekland plays his London girlfriend, but even she doesn't look particularly glamorous in this operatically gloomy film, which ends with a memorable climax and a brilliant twist.

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