Watching this British crime thriller, I was quickly reminded of many other similar movies released in the 1960s to theaters and not just British movies, but American, Italian and French. That's not to say this isn't an original idea, and it is handled well, but it's hard not to notice. The tough, quiet, hard-bitten crook is at the top of his game only to find himself at the bottom of the heap and looking to work his way up. Yes, it is all familiar, but for a movie released in 1960, it is incredibly dark and cynical. Everyone is a bad guy -- just depends on the shades of gray -- and in the end, you know it's just not going to be a happy ending for anyone involved.
After serving a long stint in prison, John Bannion (Baker) is released with a pardon, but not before administering one last round of extreme prison justice to a newly arrived prisoner. Working on a tip from a fellow prisoner, Bannion goes to work on a new job that will net his whole crew a bundle of cash. It all seems to good to be true, and it is. The job goes off without a hitch, but someone involved with the heist is an informant, turning Bannion in. Before he is arrested though, the recently released crook hides all off the cash they robbed and doesn't tell anyone. As he prepares to go back to prison though, Bannion knows he has a huge target on his back because everyone wants to know the location of the hidden cash, including the informant who turned him in.
I'll get the negatives out of the way early. I've written about this before, and it will most likely come up again. As an American viewer, a British accent can be a hard one to understand. That's a huge problem here. The dialogue from Alun Owen's screenplay is fast-paced and delivered quickly back and forth between characters who are already mumbling to each other. Long story short, I wasn't always aware of exactly what was going on. You've got a sense of the big picture, but I'm quite sure I missed a fair share of things along the way. Also, when you can't understand the words being spoken -- much less hear them -- characters' names and important places get lost in the shuffle. Looking through the full cast listings at IMDB, I can only identify about half the people listed, and when you're not familiar with many of the faces, that can be a major problem.
I've always thought of movies changing to a more cynical, honest look at the world as coming along in the late 1960s when violence, sex and harsher language all became more acceptable in the eyes of the audience. Well, this Joseph Losey crime thriller didn't get the memo. The violence isn't necessarily graphic, but it certainly makes an impact. Characters are picked off left and right as needed, and the consequences on those nearby are clearly seen. This isn't bang, character dies, let's move on. There's also some surprising uses of on-screen nudity, some as "tame" as the paintings of naked women in Baker's apartment, others as in your face as German beauty and Baker's love interest Margit Saad stepping out of a tub and the camera doesn't pan away. No complaints (she looks marvelous to quote Billy Crystal), just an observation.
So it's dark, it's cynical, and no real redeeming qualities anywhere in sight. Quite a combination of three for a movie. As the star, Baker plays John Bannion straight down the middle. He's a criminal without a good bone in his body, always looking out for himself. He uses everyone around him for personal gain, except Saad's Suzanne, who he may genuinely like or maybe he just enjoys sleeping with her. It is all relative though because the characters around him are that much worse. There are mobsters gunning for him, sadistic guards who coordinate the beatings, wardens who prefer to remain clueless, fellow prisoners who'd like nothing more than to split him open, and past girlfriends with a grudge. This guy has his work cut out for him if he wants to make it out alive.
Reflecting the general nature of the cast, the movie is filmed in the darkness and shadows. The prison set is cramped and claustrophobic, and things don't get better even when Bannion is released. His apartment is poorly lit and packed with possessions, but it's cold. That's the whole movie. It is cold and hard to get involved with, but somehow it still does. In the supporting cast, look for Sam Wanamaker and Nigel Green as part of Bannion's crew, Patrick Magee as head guard Barrows, and Gregoire Aslan as a prisoner with mob connections who can pull some strings.
The Criminal <---trailer (1960): ** 1/2 /****