Director: Joseph Losey
In a recent post on They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), I cited that film as a rare British example of American-style film noir. Joseph Losey's 1960 picture The Criminal (released in the US two years later under the rather misleading title The Concrete Jungle) is another example of a film noir made in Britain with genuine fidelity to the conventions of the genre, although with some updating—it's more lurid and more sexually explicit than earlier American examples of the genre—that brings it closer to the spirit of the then-emerging Swinging Sixties. Losey was, of course, actually an American with previous experience directing Hollywood noirs (M, The Prowler, The Big Night), a refugee from the film industry witch hunts of the early fifties. Relocating to Britain and working at first under various pseudonyms, he continued his film directing career as an expatriate until his death in 1984.
The Criminal opens with a shot of three men sitting around a table playing poker with tense concentration. As they make their final bet of 7,000 pounds and lay down their cards, the camera draws back for a longer shot—to reveal that the men are actually sitting in a prison cell and the 7,000 pounds is really seven cigarettes. Almost immediately the credit sequence begins, a two-minute long take of numerous prisoners and guards and the roving camera performing an elaborately choreographed dance around each other while the credits roll and on the soundtrack Cleo Laine sings the mournful, bluesy theme song: "All my sadness, all my joy / Came from loving a thieving boy." It's a remarkable opening which announces unequivocally that this is going to be a film that uses image and sound in ways which will keep us constantly surprised.
In the film Stanley Baker plays a career criminal named John Bannion who is due to be released on parole the next day. During his three years inside, he has been planning a racetrack robbery in meticulous detail. Upon his release he reconnects with an old criminal crony, Mike Carter (played by the American actor Sam Wanamaker, another refugee from the Hollywood witch hunts), who helps him handpick a team to assist in the heist. The evening of his release, Carter organizes a welcome home party for Bannion, where he meets the sexy and seductive Suzanne (Margit Saad), who throws herself at him, and soon he has fallen in love with her. The robbery succeeds, and Bannion takes the stolen money to a field in the countryside, where he buries it, planning to retrieve it to be laundered after it has cooled off.
When Bannion makes the mistake of taking 500 pounds from the loot to buy an engagement ring for Suzanne, this allows the police to trace the money back to him, and he quickly finds himself back in prison. As soon as he arrives, he begins to plan an escape so that he can make his way to the loot, the escape to be covered by a riot engineered by Bannion's prison friends to divert attention away from him. The riot and escape form a stunningly conceived sequence, sensationally staged by Losey, photographed by Robert Krasker (Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and The Third Man), and scored by jazz composer John Dankworth. It's a good example of what David Thomson identifies as the defining feature of Losey's early films, the melding of the contradictory qualities of "subtlety" and "hysteria"—subtle in its precisely controlled visual choreography, hysterical in its typically flamboyant Losey touches and its hyperkinetic sense of organized chaos.
The screenplay, credited to Alun Owen (A Hard Day's Night) but according to the British Film Institute actually a rewrite of a script by veteran Hammer Films writer Jimmy Sangster, gives the film a tidy four-act structure. The first and third parts—about half the film's running time—take place in prison. In many ways these sections are an update of the traditional Warner Brothers-style prison movies of the thirties. The power structure of the inmates with Johnny as "top man," the opposing alliances of prisoners enforced by violent intimidation, the autocratic head guard, the weak prison warden—all the elements associated with this type of movie are present, only depicted here with even greater than usual emphasis on prison corruption and brutality. As bleak as this prison world is, though, it's a world that is totally ordered and self-regulated. The rules that govern it are understood, each man has a defined place in its power hierarchy, and its concepts of justice and ethics—as peculiar as they may be—are clear. At the same time it's also a world whose sense of order allows for a certain amount of individuality and fluidity within its social structure.
One of the great ironies of The Criminal is that when Bannion leaves prison, he finds in the criminal world outside its walls an even more oppressive environment, and the film takes an unexpected turn from a prison/heist movie to a movie about a loner battling the power elite (a type of narrative strategy Losey would use with even more startling results in his next film, the juvenile delinquent thriller turned sci-fi chiller These Are the Damned). At this point the film noir ethos really comes into play. Maybe Losey did in fact have a Marxist world view, because what happens to Bannion outside prison could almost be considered analogous to the plight of the individual worker in the face of a monolithic power structure, here a criminal syndicate organized on corporate principles. As Mike Carter warns Bannion at one point when he attempts to rebel against the dictates of the higher-ups in the criminal world, "Your sort doesn't fit into an organization. So we can't have you running about messing things up, now can we, Johnny?"
An even greater irony is that while Bannion might believe he's in control of his destiny, in this deterministic film noir universe the concept of choice turns out to be largely illusory. It is only toward the end of the film that he realizes he has been played and betrayed by the criminal organization the whole way to get him to lead them to the money. Every decision, every action he has taken has actually been preordained. Subtle forces have been exerted on him to move him in a certain direction, and his every reaction to these forces has been predicted and plotted in advance. Bannion thinks he has been acting on his own initiative, but the entire time since his release from prison, about twenty minutes into the movie, he has been callously manipulated like a piece in a chess game.
If like Bannion you think there is any possibility of his overcoming the odds against him, forget it. "Don't be a silly boy, John," Carter tells him smugly. "You can't win." And of course he's right.
You might also like:
• These Are the Damned (1963)
• They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)