Currently listed under its alternate title The Concrete Jungle on IMDB, The Criminal was one of a string of features shot in the UK by American director Joseph Losey after being backlisted in Hollywood when he fell foul of McCarthyism. Having had some success in the US in the 1940s, most notably with the allegorical fantasy The Boy with Green Hair, he relocated to the UK in the early fifties and churned out a series of low-budget thrillers under a series of pseudonyms but with the turn of the decade he began to release features under his own name.
Released in 1960 and starring Stanley Baker and a dazzling array of British character actors including Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee and Murray Melvin amongst many others, The Criminal is a combination of prison drama and heist movie. The protagonist is Johnny Bannion (Baker), an uber-alpha male, career criminal and prison top dog who is on the verge of being released.
With a plan to carry out a heist on a racetrack once he is a free man, upon release Bannion looks up old gangland connections and begins a relationship with Suzanne, but after the job he is grassed up by a fence and is sent back to prison to resume his life as King of the Hill. Pressured by police, fellow inmates and corrupt prison officers to reveal the location of the buried loot, he arranges a deal in return for transfer to a less secure prison but he is sprung by his gangland colleagues who kidnap Suzanne to coerce the location of the money.
Despite having a tiny budget, Losey and his collaborators managed to produce something quite exceptional from Alun Owen’s script by dint of using some of the best talent around. Stanley Baker was a well-known actor at that time best known for playing rugged villains and he effortlessly carries the film.
Surrounded by some of the best character talent of the time, regrettably the weakest aspect of the whole film is the characterisation of Johnny’s girlfriend Suzanne (Margit Saad), a pretty empty-headed blonde who is a clingy, rather pathetic young woman incapable of any independent thought or action.
The film divides itself between an ultra-realistic prison set and a very snowy and bleak rural England which adds enormous atmosphere to the later scenes shot on location. Aesthetically the film is a mix of kitchen-sink drama and ultra-violent thriller with a dash of European arthouse adorned with some artistic flourishes that remind the viewer that Losey was a filmmaker of considerable talent unfortunately constrained by budget limitations; for example, in one particularly violent scene a “brick” cell wall bounces when a prisoner is slammed into it.
The Criminal was released to a mixed reception; the prison scenes were so intense and violent that the film was banned in some territories, and Losey would have to wait another three years before his first major hit, The Servant, an intelligent homoerotic suspense thriller which features an aristocratic young man (James Fox) who unknowingly hires a butler (Dirk Bogarde) with a hidden agenda, it gained huge international attention and pushed Losey into the A-list.
Given more freedom and money Losey went on to produce a very mixed bag of big-budget features from the later 1960s right up until the end of his career in 1985. They covered most genres and achieved vastly differing levels of success. Nevertheless, Losey is considered one of the great film directors of the 20th century and his best films such as The Go-Between rank amongst the all-time classics.
The Criminal is available on Blu-ray and DVD from September 16th as part of Studio Canal’s Vintage Classics range