The Criminal (Joseph Losey, 1960)
Joseph Losey does it again. He was making quality American films (such as his intriguing re-telling of ‘M’ in 1951 that also played as part of this CQ program, in which he transplanted Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece portrait of a child killer from the shadowy, paranoia filled streets of Berlin to the sunnier, though no less haunted, climes of Los Angeles) even before getting blacklisted as a Communist during the shamefully hysterical red-baiting period of the atrocious House of Un-American Activities Committee, which destroyed many a Hollywood career, leading to Losey’s European exile… and even far more brilliant filmic output in the UK, which for me now includes The Criminal, of which I had barely any idea existed prior to it being screened herein, let alone how powerful it is (as a side note, from the so absurd it’s hard to believe it’s true, yet it is, the Democratic Party, with the help of the mainstream media, has done the impossible and brought the shrill red scare back in vogue today – despite the fact that Russia isn’t even a communist country anymore… I guess you can never underestimate the electorate’s ability to be duped through fear-mongering, as well as to forget history).
From it’s first, astonishing lead-in scenes, starting with a quick, tense prologue of a small British prison poker game — the camera attentive to the faces of these players who will eventually be revealed as important — to the matter-of-fact methodical, yet somehow larger than life, arrival of a new prisoner, with the credits playing out and a beautifully melancholic, jazz-y score showcasing a female singer detailing life as a criminal, — then switching to a brilliantly choreographed roving camera shot (including travelling up multiple levels) following a prisoner going about his chores singing ‘knick knack paddywhack’ while interspersing it with corresponding whispers of ‘Kelly’s back, Kelly’s back’ to each prisoner he passes (while cleverly introducing each of the important characters and providing a hint at the role they’ll play with the arrival of this new prisoner) — and on to the next moment, with the prisoners in the rec room and a black calypso player singing a song of what Kelly’s return will mean to one Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a tough prison gang leader who has a past with Kelly, Losey’s filmic control over the material is profoundly masterful.
The movie settles into following Bannion, as he maneuvers a release from prison to set things right on the outside, only to discover his criminal kingpin ways are starting to fall into irrelevancy against a new corporate criminality. The Welsh actor Baker plays Bannion with a tough, brooding assuredness, just as quick to charm (and even sensitivity) with the girlfriend he loves as he is to brutal violence with his enemies. With his presence as a performer, I can only imagine it being unfortunate circumstances to why he never became as big a star as, say, Sean Connery (though I’m definitely gonna do some digging into his career to figure out why).
The script is built on a fairly daring narrative construct, with about half the film in prison and half with Bannion out on the streets trying to reclaim his kingdom (including going on another heist), yet Losey moves effortlessly between it all; whether when mixing up formalistic classic noir style with contemporary brutal-realistically prison film (including stark cruelty and corruption on the part of the guards) during the incarceration sequences, or when daring more than a modicum of powerful socio-political angst along the lines of an Angry Young Man/Kitchen Sink melodrama (of the kind that was literally bursting out of British cinema at the time) when Bannion is out on furlough, Losey maximizes it all (he even eschews showing the details of the actual heist at the horse racing track the guys go in on, and the movie doesn’t miss it at all).
A fascinating trait I’ve started to notice in Losey’s films (though the actors may not think it so admirable, and I’m not quite sure you’d get away with a lot of it today) is – whether it be the scene in M in which we watch from long shot, the child killer character practically drag his poor young girl victim down a long series of outdoor steps, to the scene of a fleeing Bannion and his girl dangerously navigating some winter ice on a dock leaving them precariously close to falling in the freezing river next to them, to the absolutely mental scene in Losey’s fascinating 1970 existential chase film Figures in a Landscape in which the character played by Malcolm Mcdowell, with his hands tied behind his back is hurrying out of control down a dangerous rocky hill as a following helicopter (!) is flying so close it is literally hitting him in his back with its landing legs – is that, for better or worse, the filmmaker isn’t afraid to push his thesps into some seriously physical situations – and perhaps even a bit of danger — in the name of achieving an intense reality.
It’s an astonishingly vibrant film by Losey, with pitch-perfect performances all around. It tells a profoundly nihilistic tale of a morally complex gangster who we learn, if not to love, to at least side with, against the shady ruthless businessmen villains whose very lack of any moral code allows them to outwit the streetwise kingpin.