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  • Benjamin May

Villain (1971) Review

Vic Dakin is a ruthless gay gangster who loves his mother, bullies his boyfriends and intimidates the authorities. A powerful figure in the East End mob scene, Dakin hears of a potential payroll heist opportunity, and decides to go for it- abandoning his usual modus operandi. Working alongside rival Frank Fletcher, Dakin has few he can trust on the job. Matters are complicated by dogged detective Bob Matthews, as well as Dakin’s relationship with his underling and lover Wolfe, whose loyalties are ambiguous to say the least. Will Dakin pull off the heist; or will the villain finally face his comeuppance?

Gritty and darkly funny, Michael Tuchner's 'Villain' is an engaging crime film à la ‘Get Carter’ or ‘The Long Good Friday.’ Based on the novel ‘The Burden of Proof’ by James Barlow, and from a screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Al Lettieri, the film features strong characterisation and an entertaining narrative, as well as one of the best shot heist sequences of the 1970’s. Moreover, though, it explores the psychology of a sadistic bully, whose allegiances are only to himself.

Dakin is a fascinating character- supposedly based on Ronnie Kray- who is charming one moment, cruel the next. His relationship with Wolfe is especially interesting, whom he bullies into submission, though has a sincere fondness for. He treats his mother with deference, playing the epitome of the good son when he’s with her, though could kick someone to death when she’s out of earshot. Dakin is a self-interested, psychopathic sadist, who asserts his dominance through violence and intimidation, and is endlessly watchable as he does so.

Furthermore, Clement, Frenais and Lettieri’s narrative exposes the corruption and hypocrisy of 70’s Britain and its political and social system, through Dakin’s exploitation of same. Tackling a variety of themes in a mature way- such as homosexuality, the confluence of sex and violence, as well as corruption- ‘Villain’ must have been a relatively tough watch for audiences in 1971. However, it is also a funny film- intentionally and otherwise- keeping things from getting too dark. While the dialogue tends toward the overblown and cliched, ‘Villain’ has a lot going for it.

Christopher Challis’s cinematography is gritty and atmospheric. His usage of low-angles and shadows creates tension, while also making Dakin appear all the more brutal and menacing. He captures the bleakness and brutality of the London underworld- as well as the contrast between Dakin’s lavish lifestyle and his violent deeds- with style and verve. The film also benefits from Jonathan Hodges’s stirring score, as well as Ralph Sheldon’s astute editing, which lends the film a steady pace, bolstering its impact and suspense.

‘Villain’ stars Richard Burton as Dakin, alongside Ian McShane as Wolfe, Nigel Davenport as Matthews and T.P. McKenna as Fletcher. Burton is marvellously menacing as the cockney criminal, even if his accent isn’t exactly consistent. Unlike in many of the projects he made in the 70’s, he really gives the role his all; delivering a nuanced and entertaining performance. McShane masterfully underplays it, sharing a fine chemistry with Burton, making his character both believable and compelling. Davenport and McKenna are both excellent, while Donald Sinden nearly steals the show as dodgy MP Gerald Draycott.

While not as polished or coherent as ‘The Long Good Friday’, Michael Tuchner’s ‘Villain’ is still an entertaining and enjoyable crime flick. Although the dialogue is stilted from time to time, the narrative is engaging, the cinematography gritty and the score rousing. Boasting strong performances from all in the cast- especially those of stars Richard Burton and Ian McShane- ‘Villain’ shows that crime doesn’t pay; and is a film well worth paying for.


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