Though the American classic film noir cycle had run its course by the late 1950’s, its British equivalent kept calm and carried on into the mid-1960’s. Part of the reason was due to television's much slower roll-out in the UK; movie attendance held up and the double-feature with its staple of low-budget crime dramas and film noirs hung on.
But more essential to the equation was the underlying and unforgiving grimness of post-war life in Britain. The human and economic toll of WWll had been devastating and hundreds of thousands of British citizens upped and moved abroad. The depressed psychic landscape provided fertile ground on which film noir’s dark impulses would still flourish.
The early ‘sixties saw release of numbers of anxious and cheerless noirs such as ‘The Criminal’ (1960), ‘Hell is a City’ (1960), ‘The Frightened City’ (1961), ‘Payroll’ (1961), ‘Blind Corner’ (1963), ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ (1963) and the best of the multiple Merton Park ‘Edgar Wallace Theatre’ releases incl. ‘The Verdict’, ‘Act of Murder’, and ‘The Third Secret’ in 1964. These were followed by the brutally cynical ‘spy noir’ titles, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ (1965) and ‘The Deadly Affair’ (1966) both based on novels by John le Carré.
But after the collapse of the nation’s prohibitive censorship regime in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, the gloves really came off. While many US crime dramas released during this ‘post-noir’ and formative ‘neo-noir’ period such as ‘Harper’ (1966) , ‘Chandler’ (1971), ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973), 'Chinatown' (1974),‘The Drowning Pool’ (1975)’, ‘Night Moves’ (1975) and ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ (1975) still leaned towards film noir’s fated romanticism, Brit noir headed off violently in a very different direction.
Instead of moody private dicks and their suspect clients, the British chose the devils they knew better – raging and brutish London gangsters (the heavy mob) fierce to go at it either with each other or off-the-leash coppers (the filth).
If hazy sunshine and lucent swimming pools now were to be signifiers of American noir, it would be heavy skies and dank abandoned cesspits that would signpost the British. And here are ten films that leave no doubt as to the difference.
1. Robbery (1967)
‘Robbery’ is closely-based on the famous real-life Great Train Robbery, news stories of which held the world in thrall in late 1963 and beyond.
At the time of production, the actual events of the real-life robbery were still fresh in the public’s mind. So with limited room for invention or surprise ‘Robbery’ opts to focus on the planning, mechanics and execution of things - starting with an audacious hit-and-run jewel robbery, the proceeds of which are needed to finance the train job. This particular heist features the jaw-dropping car-chase sequence that would score director Peter Yates’ his next film i.e. ‘Bullitt’ starring Steve McQueen.
‘Robbery’s mastermind is Paul Clifton played by the stolid Stanley Baker, an actor who, as someone once said, had a face like a fist. Exchanges among Baker and crew are few and brief, sharpening the suspense. But though not much is said, it’s evident these are not men to hold down square jobs or lead patient lives. Some are obsessed with money and status, others just desperate not to return to prison. While Clifton instructs his gang, ‘no guns’, he keeps one close, telling his distraught wife Kate (Joanna Pettet) that he'll never go back inside.
Meantime the police are aware that something dodgy is going on and Clifton is involved. James Booth gives a nicely irritable performance as the tenacious Inspector George Langdon who’s got his suspicions but can’t convince the higher-ups.
‘Robbery’ plays out like a rogue sporting event in which both sides evince some grudging respect for the other and the willingness to observe a few rules. It’s one of the last ‘league of gentlemen’ films that noir might ever see. To this day ‘Robbery’ remains a genuinely thrilling movie - even if you already do know the outcome.
2. The Strange Affair (1968)
After failing his university exams, Peter Strange (Michael York) joins the London Metro Police as a lark. His boss David Pierce (Jeremy Kemp) is obsessed with bagging Quince, a former cop, now a big-time drug dealer. Peter meanwhile gets involved with an underage hippy waif, Frederica (Susan George), unaware that their sexual romps are being filmed by her aunt and uncle who are porn dealers.
Pierce comes by the footage and uses it to blackmail Peter into planting drugs on Quince, setting him up for an easy bust. However, the case begins to falls apart, along with what’s left of the careers of Pierce and Strange. It gets worse.
Directed by David Greene (‘The Shuttered Room’ 1967, 'I Start Counting' 1970) ‘The Strange Affair’ is set at time when London was still swinging and was a breakthrough with its nudity and daring. But no matter how sensationally and stylishly told, it’s a noir melodrama of pure despair. To quote Gilbert and Sullivan, ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’.
The cast of ‘The Strange Affair’ is as well-suited as one would expect and includes the formidable Nigel Davenport as a defense counsel. Susan George of course only needs to show up - and show up she does.
3. The Big Switch (1968)
Hard man John Carter (Sebastian Breaks) is a player who pulls birds (gets women) just by asking. One night in a London bar he picks up Samantha and they go back to her place. Carter goes out for some fags (cigarettes) and when he returns he finds Samantha shot dead. Not that he cares all that much.
Next day Carter’s fired from his job at an ad agency. Again, no big deal. Carter picks up and goes home - only to be worked over by three goons there to collect on a debt he doesn’t seem to know anything about.
Then to really make his day he’s hauled into the club where he’d picked up Samantha and is told by the sleaze-ball owner Mendez there’s evidence linking Carter to the murder. Mendez offers Carter a way out – an unspecified job that requires him to go to Brighton (‘Where the Filthy Rich Go for Dirty Weekends’) and wait for instructions. Carter whose options are narrowing fast has no choice but to accept.
Directed by Pete Walker, once the bête noire of British cinema, ‘The Big Switch’ is a behind-the-counter guilty pleasure - largely due to a plot that keeps you guessing until it’s ready both to reveal its secrets and offer an explanation for what’s going on that doesn’t insult your intelligence.
Given that the film was intended basically as a sex-and-violence exploitation flick, that’s not such a bad deal. Actually 'The Big Switch’ is a pretty good deal. Walker works in an impressively compact and unflashy way and usually manages to shoe-horn smart bits of action/ titillation into otherwise mundane sequences.
Pete Walker made a point of getting up establishment noses (or as Monty Python would call them, ‘toffee-nosed, stuffed-upped, sticky-beaks’). However the British Film Institute since has given a special DVD release to several of Walker’s pulp noir entries - demonstrating that some if not all has been forgiven.
4. Performance (1968)
Chas (James Fox), a psychotically violent East London gangster needs a place to lie low after a hit that should never have happened. He finds cover in a guest house run by the mysterious Mr. Turner (Mick Jagger), a one-time rock star who’s looking for someone or something to rekindle his faded career.
As stuffed-shirt critic John Simon said of the film at the time - and perhaps rightly so, “You don’t have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist or nitwit to enjoy it but being one or more of these things would help”.
Though it’s important to include mention of ‘Performance’ here, it’s not really required to dwell on it.
5. Man of Violence (1970)
Moon (Michael Latimer) is a bit of a lad. His clothes are stylish, his car is sporty and his women are choice. He’s also a go-between, a mercenary who sells his services to the highest bidder. He’s been hired by two gangsters each of whom is paying him to spy on the other. While he’s happy to play along, it seems that both his employers also are busy scrambling to track down a huge amount of gold bullion removed from a recently-liberated African country.
Moon realizes that with the stakes so high, being piggy-in-the-middle between two gangland villains isn’t the smartest place to be. He decides to go after the bullion on his own with a gorgeous blonde, Angel (Luan Peters) in tow and the race across three continents is on.
‘Man of Violence’ was intended to be just another Pete Walker quick-turnover title. It only passed the British Board of Film Censors with major cuts but still isn’t hurting for any lack of mayhem and sex – including an eye-popping scene in which Moon beds the boyfriend of a homosexual Member of Parliament in order to get information.
Moon if not likeable is at least entertaining - along with the film’s other characters, the controlled direction and cinematography and a smarter-than-it-seems script. But Walker’s films always were smarter than they at first seemed. Walker went on to find commercial success in noir-drenched 'terror' films but eventually packed it in to become a property developer.
6. Villain (1970)
The ‘Villain’ here is a London gangster named Vic Dakin, an unappealing and ruthless thug. Dakin (played by Richard Burton) rules his gang with an iron fist and loves both his old mum and his boyfriend, Wolffe (Ian McShane) with whom he likes some very rough trade. No, ‘Villain’ is not a pretty picture but it is a very good movie.
Dakin’s crime empire is built around drugs, gambling and prostitution. He’s not that enthusiastic when approached about pulling an armed robbery. But the £70,000 payoff proves too much to resist even though Dakin is aware that Scotland Yard already is moving in on his gang. It’s a big chance to take but Dakin has insurance in the form of a packet of explicit photos of a Member of Parliament who will give him an alibi if he needs it. And Dakin will.
‘Villain’ is a hard, brutal film and most everything a British gangster movie should be - particularly as Dakin’s character is based on real-life crime boss, Ronnie Kray, one half of the infamous Kray twins. The film boasts a number of excellent British actors - McShane, Nigel Davenport as Dakin’s nemesis Inspector Matthews and Donald Sinden as the licentious Gerald Draycott MP.
But it’s Richard Burton who for better or worse grabs our attention by the throat. When the film came out Burton was derided for his attempt at a cockney accent and for appearing content sometimes to just recite his lines. But critical hostility toward the film was all of a piece. ‘Villain’s throw-down of sadism, violence, corruption, and twisted sexuality in itself was sure to affront and offend. That Richard Burton would have been party to it all sent the nobs off the deep end.
Of course, the thinking on ‘Villain’ has changed. While ‘Get Carter’ often is credited with having spawned the brood of noir British gangster thrillers to come, many of those offspring actually appear more to resemble ‘Villain’.
7. Get Carter (1971)
‘Get Carter,’ a dark and gritty revenge tragedy based on a novel by Ted Lewis and starring Michael Caine, generally is regarded as the best British crime film ever. Certainly it's among the smartest and most stylish and its reputation only has grown in the years since its release.
Made for a modest $750,000, it was savaged upon release for its disturbing violence and amorality and was dumped by its studio onto grindhouse and drive-in circuits in the UK and abroad. A review in the (London) Observer at the time said that the experience was like "a bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast". Today that sounds like a whole-hearted recommendation.
Michael Caine stars as Jack Carter a London mob lieutenant who returns to Newcastle in the north of England to attend the funeral of his brother who died in car accident when driving drunk. Carter suspects his brother was murdered, a suspicion which both his bosses in London and gang leaders in Newcastle would like him to abandon. But Carter eventually finds out the actual circumstances of his brother’s death and begins to inflict serious pain and retribution.
‘Get Carter’ was the film that shattered Michael Caine’s reputation for playing posh lads and preening lover boys and his performance as a remorseless anti-hero wreaking havoc on Newcastle’s underworld is signature.
Caine is in nearly every scene but the supporting performances are impressive, especially that of playwright John Osborne (‘Look Back in Anger’) as a local heavy, Cyril Kinnear. He’s ostensibly the villain of the piece – though Carter‘s own villainy and sex-and-violence-fueled lifestyle muddies the moral waters. Britt Ekland adds a touch of glamour as one of the disturbingly throwaway female characters of the movie.
Given a lean direction by Mike Hodges and strikingly photographed and edited, ’Get Carter’ showed the world how much British crime films had changed by the early 1970’s. ‘Get Carter’ not only reflected more liberal social attitudes and less stringent censorship laws but also the bleak realism of ‘60’s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas and television police series like ‘ Z Cars’. The movie is simply written and stripped clean of sentiment.
Both of its time and well ahead of it, ‘Get Carter’ remains as threatening as the day it was released.
8. Sitting Target (1972)
‘Sitting Target’ is a coarse and bloody thriller offering a naked and no-holds-barred performance from Oliver Reed as escaped convict, Harry Lomart who’s obsessed with getting revenge on his cheating wife, Pat (Jill St. John) pregnant by another man. Reed’s well-supported by Ian McShane as Birdy his more cheerful accomplice and Edward Woodward as the straight-edge copper who wants to offer Pat protection.
The prison break is the first of several sensational set-pieces in the film. It’s a lengthy sequence in which Lomart, Birdy and a another convict McNeil (Freddie Jones) evade prison screws, guard dogs, barbed-wire in order to negotiate a heart-thumping relay along a rope suspended above the yard. It’s thrilling action and also leaves no doubt as to Lomart’s determination to get to his wife and kill her.
As in ‘Get Carter’, setting is a big part of ‘Sitting Target’s overall sense of location. Director Hichox has a documentarian’s eye that shows London at its dingiest - a city polluted by industrialization, dominated by slums and tower blocks and scabbed by rubble-strewn wastelands. It’s an anonymous place where streets and neighborhoods have been abandoned or where those left behind live in fear.
‘Sitting Target’ becomes increasingly fearsome as it moves towards its explosive ending. But even if the film sometimes seems too much a ‘celebration of violence’, it’s a celebration worth joining. While ‘Sitting Target’ doesn’t achieve the depth or significance of ‘Get Carter’ it still rates as one of the most unforgettable and essential British crime noirs of the period.
9. The Offence (1973)
World-weary copper Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) is a police force veteran of twenty years. The murders, rapes and other dreadful crimes he’s had to investigate have left him raw with rage.
The long-suppressed anger finally breaks surface when Johnson goes in to interview a serial child molester Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) whom the detective is sure has carried out a series of brutal attacks on schoolgirls.
During the claustrophobic questioning process, Baxter cunningly maneuvers Johnson into a face-to-face confrontation with his own demons. Johnson sees that his identity has become blurred with that of the criminals he despises - and that realization is unbearable. The interrogation ends in violence and an internal investigator, Lieutenant Cartwright (Trevor Howard) is left to try and determine what went wrong.
Directed by Sidney Lumet ‘The Offence’ is a cross between a police procedural and a psychodrama and is as grim and unfriendly as it sounds. The film was was a self-conscious attempt by Sean Connery to distance himself fully from the Bond franchise following ‘Diamonds are Forever’. If that were his intention, it succeeded and Connery was allowed to give the best performance of his career.
Though ‘The Offence’ failed to find an audience when first released, Ian Bannen did receive a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He didn’t win but to have awarded him would have further acknowledged a movie that the British Academy really wanted to ignore. Ben Johnson got the prize for ‘The Last Picture Show’. Johnson was good but Bannen should have got the cigar.
10. The Squeeze (1977)
Jim Naboth (Stacey Keach) is an ex-Scotland Yard detective turned London private eye. He’s also an alcoholic who’s just out of detox when he out finds out his ex-wife Jill (Carol White) and his daughter have been kidnapped. Jill’s lover, Foreman (Edward Fox) owns a fleet of security trucks and Irish crime lord Vic Smith (Steven Boyd) wants a £1m ransom and route plans in exchange. When Naboth starts out to try and find Jill, the villains make another demand of Foreman – kill Naboth.
‘The Squeeze’is hard-edged and violent and arguably the most sordid of the titles here - and that’s saying something. Directed by a young Michael Apted, the film was described by a reviewer at the time as ‘a package tour of thuggery’.
Part of that package is Smith’s right-hand man Keith (David Hemmings) a degenerate slime-bag who takes pleasure in tormenting his victims. In one scene Keith forces Jill to do a humiliating strip for him and his cronies after cueing up The Stylistics’ ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ on the record player. The moment is as deliberate and cruel as the infamous ‘ear’ sequence in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and is just as devastating.
But ‘The Squeeze’ also is as brave as it is ugly thanks to another challenging, self-deprecating performance from Keach who gives new meaning to the word seedy. When Nadoth makes his entrance he looks to be at the low point of weeklong bender, bleary-eyed and bleeding. Naboth knows he’s killing himself with booze. But maybe he’s got this one last shot at redemption and in this way Keach brings a welcome humanity to this brutish yarn; likewise Freddie Starr as Naboth’s wingman Teddy, a likeable low-life who attempts to keep Naboth on something like the straight-and-narrow.
‘The Squeeze’ is a tough, tightly-executed picture that was mostly shunned at release. It's still waiting to be seen by more receptive viewers able to appreciate the film’s brand of articulate pulp mayhem.
But at the end of it all, the release of ‘The Squeeze’ effectively signaled the end of the transitional ‘60’s and ‘70’s heavy-mob cycle with its unreconstructed glorification of guns, girls, and gangsters. By this time, Brit noir was in need of something else that would renew it for popular audiences.
That something else was ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980), a film that exploded off theater screens throughout the UK and abroad and one that would come to be recognized as the first British ‘neo-noir’ (a niche occupied in the American canon by ‘Body Heat’).
This densely-plotted film worked both as a straight-ahead gangster story and as a powerful and lasting metaphor for the state of contemporary Britain – a gangsterism of corrupt political and market forces aligned with a reverence for tradition and ‘Little England’.
That said, the whiff of social and political malaise hangs over much of British noir including these heavy mob titles. However, the ten films of this transitional cycle are both what were they were meant to be and what we would want them to be - compact and dangerous B noirs that go all-out to live up to the brazen and shameless promises of their lurid one-sheets and lobby cards.
Most are throw-back thrillers that go all-out but never wantonly sell out. Each is a better film than it deserved to be given limited budgets and ambitions and each a part of a critical sub-genre that had a dramatic and lasting impact on British noir to come.