Obscure Film Friday: Villain (1971)
I’m honestly not quite sure to make of this one.
On the one hand, Villain is a mostly well-acted gangster film with a noteworthy cast (Richard Burton, Ian McShane, a bevy of popular British supporting actors). On the other, the plot is rather thin, and the film sometimes feels like it’s a Cliff Notes version of a longer and better movie.
The film’s central character is Vic Dakin, played by Burton. Dakin is an unpredictable and paranoid English gangster who enjoys beating up foe and friend alike and is quick with the razor for anyone whom he suspects of being an informant to the police. He also apparently is a devoted son to his aging and infirm mother, and at times moralizes with disgust at the peccadillos of people who engage in behaviors he considers sleazy or deviant. The latter seems to stem at least partly from an internal conflict about his own sexual orientation.
I have read the character of Dakin is a thinly-veiled portrayal of Ronnie Kray, an infamous east London crime boss during the 1960s. It is said that Ronnie and his twin brother Reggie were two of the most feared men in England. If Vic Dakin is anything like the real Krays, I can believe it.
Also prominent in the film is the character of Wolf Lissner (Ian McShane), which sounds vaguely like the name of the hero in a John Carpenter movie. This wolf is nobody’s hero, however. He specializes in pandering to wealthy elites, pressuring his partners and others in his debt, to partake in the desires of the rich and powerful. He’s a thoroughly amoral and manipulative bastard, who manages to use his good looks and the honeyed words of a pimp to coerce young women and men into doing his bidding. Wolf also engages in a bit of drug-dealing on the side.
Dakin and Wolf have had a prior association, though it’s only briefly touched on in the film. At some point, it had involved a sexual relationship as well as being one of Dakin’s henchmen. It is clear that Wolf fears Dakin, and is taking great steps to avoid him.
The plot revolves around a plan to rob the payroll of a large plastics factory. Armed robbery isn’t Vic’s usual bag, but the prize is too great to pass up. He even enlists the help of a rival “firm” (slang for another criminal family/organization) to assist in pulling off the job.
While the scenes of the planning and carrying out the heist are handled well, they feel more like they came from a tv series than a big screen movie. There’s just not a lot of meat to the script. There’s also some by-the-numbers characterization, with the usual tropes of the hothead who might screw things up with his recklessness, the nervous crook who doesn’t really want to be there, and is constantly fretting about his health, etc.
When things start to go a bit awry after the fact, the plot takes a bit of a turn to the silly, as the various leaders of the heist concoct schemes to get themselves off the hook, ranging from blackmailing a member of Parliament to faking a seizure. It’s actually more engaging that I’m probably depicting it, a testament to the acting skills of the actors involved. But typing it out on a screen, it really does seem just a little comical in places.
Countering all this criminal nastiness is the always reliable Nigel Davenport as Inspector Bob Matthews. His writing in the film is filled with “determined, honest cop” tropes, but Davenport does a good job with what he has to work with here. I especially enjoyed a couple of scenes where he was leaning on a snout (British slang for a confidential informant). Inspector Matthews isn’t quite Jack Regan from The Sweeney, but he isn’t afraid to frighten the wits out of a snitch if it helps him catch Vic Dakin.
The climax of the film, like so much of the plot, would have been more at home on a good tv drama than on the big screen. It’s engaging, but leaves the viewer wishing there had been more to it.
Final rating 6.5/10.
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