Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament, after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some scabrous humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that shows him to be hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

Books and films: True Grit

 

(c) Bloomsbury

 

Such is the cultural heft of the 1969 Western movie True Grit, for which John Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar playing the irascible, overweight and eye-patched US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, that until a few years ago I didn’t even know it was based on a novel written by Charles Portis and published in 1968.  It was only when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, were about to release their own version of True Grit in 2011, with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, that I read a preview of the film and saw Portis’s novel mentioned for the first time.

 

I recently read the novel and I thought I’d devote a blog-entry to comparing it with its two film adaptations.  Needless-to-say, if you haven’t yet read the novel or seen the Coen brothers’ film, or if you’re one of the four people on the planet who haven’t seen the John Wayne film and don’t know its dialogue off by heart (“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”), I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead.

 

To cut to the chase: True Grit-the-novel begins brilliantly.  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Worth, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

 

The narrator of True Grit is Maddie Ross, who is looking back on her youthful adventures from the vantage point of middle age.  She goes on to describe those adventures in the same, mannered – she writes her words in their entirety, for example, and doesn’t use contractions like ‘I’ll’ or ‘didn’t’ – but wonderfully direct prose.  Portis’s use of a simple Southern female to tell his story has led some to compare True Grit with Huckleberry Finn.  However, as has been pointed out by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for the edition of True Grit that I read, there’s a big difference between Maddie and the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel.  “Where Huck is barefoot and ‘uncivilised’, living happily in his hogshead barrel,” notes Tartt, “Maddie is a pure product of civilisation as a Sunday school teacher in nineteenth-century Arkansas might define it: she is a strait-laced Presbyterian, prim as a poker… tidy, industrious, frugal, with a head for figures and a shrewd business sense.”  Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see Maddie Ross’s influence on one of the most memorable of Donna Tartt’s own characters, the juvenile would-be detective Harriet Cleve in her 2002 novel The Little Friend.

 

Thanks to Maddie’s combination of precociousness and strait-lacedness, sparks soon fly as she allies herself with two men in the quest to hunt Tom Chaney down.  Firstly, she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to do the job, using money she’s acquired from some skilful haggling in Fort Worth following her father’s murder: she manages to sell four Texas mustang ponies, which her father had just bought from a trader called Colonel Stonehill, back to Stonehill.  (Later, she buys one of the ponies, called Little Blackie, back again from the understandably bamboozled Stonehill.)  Cogburn has many bad habits, including a weakness for the bottle, which Maddie doesn’t approve of.  When he offers her a spoonful of the hard stuff to drink, she snaps, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

 

Then at the lodging house she’s staying at in Fort Worth, Maddie encounters a young and conceited Texan Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s hunting Chaney for a murder he’d committed previously in Waco, Texas.  Maddie is wise to LaBoeuf’s conceit immediately and is unhappy about the idea of him taking Chaney back to stand trial in Texas – she’s determined to have him hang in Fort Worth, the scene of her father’s murder – and tells him so, much to his displeasure.  LaBoeuf growls, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”  To which Maddie retorts brilliantly, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.”  (It seems icky that thirty-year-old LaBoeuf would consider ‘stealing a kiss’ from fourteen-year-old Maddie.  Mind you, by nineteenth-century standards, I suppose this wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.)

 

(c) Paramount

 

In the 1969 film, Maddie is less central to the plot and she’s also played by Kim Darby, who was in her early twenties at the time.  These things remove much of the humour from the situation – no longer are two rough, tough grown men being bossed around by a pushy and prudish girl in her early teens.  Because of Darby’s maturity, Maddie seems much more compatible with LaBoeuf (who’s played by country singer Glen Campbell) and as the film progresses there’s a whiff of romance between the two of them.  Furthermore, there are times when John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems almost like a father-figure to them both.

 

Nonetheless, the 1969 True Grit remains an amusing film.  With Maddie portrayed in more conventional terms, there’s more focus on Cogburn himself – and of course Wayne, who’d thought the film’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, seized the opportunity and played the marshal as an entertainingly rambunctious, almost Falstaffian figure.  I know serious film-buffs are sniffy about Wayne winning an Oscar for the role and dismiss it as a long-time service award rather than as recognition of specific acting ability, but to be fair, Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn has stayed in the popular consciousness for longer than many other Oscar-winning performances from the time.  (Nowadays, for instance, who really remembers Cliff Robertson in the previous year’s Charly?)

 

In 2011, the Coen brothers returned to the novel’s framing device and to the concept of Maddie being little more than a child.  As well as recapturing the wry humour of the novel, this approach puts Maddie centre-stage and pushes Cogburn a little to the side – as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure than Wayne’s version.  LaBoeuf, who’s played by Matt Damon, is side-lined even more.  Damon’s portrayal of the ranger is pretty low-key anyway, and for some reason the Coens have him abandon Maddie and Rooster twice during the film – neither of these departures happened in the novel – which further lessens the character’s impact.  With Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen years old at the time of filming) playing Maddie, the character’s solemn and priggish voice that was so memorable in Portis’s book comes across strongly.

 

However, I would have liked it if the Coens had included a few more of Maddie’s quaint, religious pronouncements.  “…(A)ll cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says at one point in the novel.  “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say, well, this is superstitious ‘claptrap’.  My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”  Elsewhere, she describes Woodrow Wilson as “the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age” and she reprimands the breakaway Cumberland Presbyterian Church by saying, “Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10.  Also I Peter1: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7.  There you have it.  It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me.  It is good enough for you too.”

 

The novel sees Maddie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off into Indian Territory, where Chaney has fallen in with a band of desperadoes led by ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper.  At first, neither man is enamoured with Maddie’s presence.  Only gradually does she earn their respect and acceptance.  Cogburn sides with her when LaBoeuf, in a fit of impatience, starts beating her with a switch: “Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf.  He said, ‘It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper.’”  Later, it’s LaBoeuf’s turn to support Maddie against Cogburn, who proposes leaving her at J.J. McAlester’s store, a rare safe haven in the territory: “LaBoeuf said, ‘There is something in what she says, Cogburn.  I think she has done fine myself.  She has won her spurs, so to speak.  That is just my personal opinion.’”

 

The 1969 and 2011 films follow the novel fairly faithfully during this section, although as I’ve said, the Coen brothers have the threesome separate for a time.  Also, they insert some characteristically perverse stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin.  It’s as if the brothers decided they had to make the story a little more Coen-esque, so that it would appeal to their normal audiences.  Both films are similar in how they show events at a dugout where Cogburn captures Quincy and Moon, two associates of the Ned Pepper gang.  In order to stop the weak-willed Moon from blabbing to Cogburn about the gang’s movements, Quincy grabs a knife and whacks the fingers off one of his hands (“which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log”).  In the 1969 movie, the unfortunate Moon is played by the great Dennis Hopper.  In the 2011 movie, he’s played by the currently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleason.

 

(c) Paramount 

 

Close to the book too is how both films depict the climactic action sequence where Cogburn squares up to the Pepper gang:

 

“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience!  Which will you have?’

“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed.  He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’

“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”

 

In fact, I have seen one film critic – clearly ignorant of the book’s existence – complain that the Coen brothers’ True Grit was too similar to the John Wayne version, citing this scene as an example.  As might be expected from the Coens, the confrontation between Cogburn and the Pepper gang is better staged in their film.  However, in the 1969 film, which was directed by the workmanlike and unshowy Henry Hathaway, the scene contains more of an emotional charge – no doubt because, over the years, it’s become one of the key sequences in John Wayne’s cinematic oeuvre.

 

Subsequently, Tom Chaney batters LaBoeuf insensible with a rock and, though Maddie manages to shoot him, he knocks her into a deep, rattlesnake-infested pit.  Rooster finally rescues her, but not before a snake bites her, and he embarks on a desperate race to get her back to civilisation before the poison kills her – riding her luckless horse, Little Blackie, to death in the process.  In the novel and in the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf survives his injury but is, temporarily, left behind in Indian Territory.  In the 1969 film, the blow from Chaney’s rock is enough to kill LaBoeuf.  Neither film quite does justice to the claustrophobic horrors that Maddie experiences in the pit, which Portis devotes ten pages of his novel to describing.  The Coen brothers are, however, brutal in showing the sacrifice made by Little Blackie.

 

The novel ends a quarter-century after those events with Maddie as a one-armed middle-aged woman – to save her, a doctor had to amputate her snake-bitten arm – travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s discovered, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing.  But she arrives too late.  After having a conversation with the former outlaws, now show performers, Cole Younger and Frank James (“Keep your seat, trash!” she snorts contemptuously at James), she learns that Cogburn died a few days earlier.  All she can do is have his remains dug up and then re-buried at her family plot in Arkansas, with a $65 marble headstone commemorating him as “a resolute officer of Parker’s court”.  The 2011 film stays true to this wistful ending, which symbolises how, by the start of the 20th century, the old Wild West had been tamed and domesticated.  However, it’s a tad more positive, because it has Cogburn writing to Maddie to inform her of his participation in the Wild West show.  In the book, there’s no hint that Cogburn even remembers her, and she only hears about him being in the show after her brother sees it mentioned in a newspaper advertisement.

 

Although there are other westerns where John Wayne played a character who died at the end, symbolising the passing of the Wild West – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for instance, or Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) – the 1969 True Grit goes for a more upbeat ending.  Not only does Maddie remain in one piece (we last see her with the bitten arm in a sling), but there’s a final scene where she’s reunited with Rooster Cogburn at her murdered father’s graveside.  That said, I find this version of True Grit sad in its own way.  This is because of the death of LaBoeuf, who’s a more likeable and heroic character here and, indeed, had seemed likely to end up romantically linked with Maddie.  In fact, as a kid, when I first saw the film on TV, I was quite upset at Glen Campbell’s unexpected demise near the end.

 

I like both cinematic versions of True Grit.  I appreciate the Coen brothers’ film because it captures much of the sombre but quirkily amusing tone of the source material, and I enjoy the John Wayne film because of its straightforward, old-fashioned entertainment value.  But to experience the truest True Grit, you need to read the book by Charles Portis.