Richard Burton Doing His Best Ronnie Kray Imitation in 1971’s “Villain”

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1971 Poster for “Villain”

The British gangster film is truly its own genre that normally delineates itself from its American and Japanese counterparts by including a kind of ugly humor and coldness that is rarely seen in any other crime film genre. Starting with John Boulting’s superb 1947 film, “Brighton Rock,” through the 50s and 60s, the genre flowed next to The British New Wave and was quite popular even though the plot lines and characters had gotten a bit too formulaic that is, until real life gangsters and brothers, Reggae and Ronnie Kray dominated the headlines. Though the Krays were as violent and ruthless as Hisayuki Machii and Al Capone, there were two distinct things that differentiated them from their American and Japanese counterparts: Reggae and Ronnie were both exceedingly lovely towards their mother Violet, and Ronnie had been well known in crime circles as bisexual, a fact that British journalists had a field day with at the time.   British gangster films of course took notice of these facts and “homosexuality and bisexuality” would play a role in many of the genre’s subsequent films. From early efforts like Nicolas Roeg’s “Performance” released in 1970 to John Mackensie’s 1980 film, “The Long Good Friday,” and even recently in films such as Mike Hodges, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” in 2003.” But somehow lost in this melee of bisexual, mother-loving, sadistic gangster films is Michael Tuchner’s strong 1971 film “Villain.”

“Villain” is the story of Vic Dakin, a charismatic but vicious crime lord who like the real life Ronnie Kray, loves his ailing mum and is bisexual, depicted here as Dakin maintains a turbulent sexual relationship with amateur pimp to the mob and heartthrob Wolfie (an young Ian McShane), a good-looking lad who Vic must punch around a bit before a session of lovemaking. Though Vic is the master of his neighborhood, he wants a bigger score and sets up the mark with another kingpin as they set in to rob a plastic factory. When the deal goes down badly and his co-conspirator is wounded in the heist, Vic wants to silence his partner in crime before the police inspector (well done by Nigel Davenport) can get a confession out of him.   From there its a game of cat and mouse as Vic tries to find the money and elude capture while sneaking away occasionally to share a moment or two of sexual violence with Wolfie. It must be said here that you never see any actual sexual moments in “Villain” between McShane and Burton as their one lovemaking scene was deemed too racy for early 1970s England and discarded from the final cut. What was kept in “Villain,” are a few scenes of violence that Little Alex in “Clockwork Orange” would describe as “ultra violence.” The English audiences may not have been primed for the kind of sexuality that Villain wanted to portray but the time was right for this level of “red red groovy” to be shown on the screen.

 1971 Trailer for “Villain”

 

The last third of this film plays out tightly and with real grit as a both main characters play off of each other in trying to avoid prison. Burton, who for most of his career had played a sex symbol, is raw and ugly and although he is not given much in terms of dialog, plays a fairly complex character well with varying intensities of emotion. Ian McShane, who had gotten good notice for his performance as Charlie in the sweet 1969 Mel Stuart film, “If Its Tuesday, This Must Belgium,” is the shining star of “Villain” as he brings a lost, desperate overtone to the character of Wolfie. If one aspect of “Villain” is truly lacking, it is the visual aesthetic of the film. Tucher, fresh off of television does not have much of an eye, and thus the cinematography seems very small-screen. Compared with “Performance” shot by the always-daring eye of Nicolas Roeg a year earlier, “Villain” must have underwhelmed an English audience hoping to see something in their favorite genre that would knock their sock offs.

Although “Villain” also boasted the star talent of the great Richard Burton, it did not do well both with critics and at the box office as it was publicly known that all was not well with Richard. Two years earlier, Burton had played Rex Harrison’s gay partner in Stanley Donen’s dreadful drama-comedy “Staircase,” about a pair of flamboyant East End barbers who are constantly at each other for laughs. That film was a critical and box office disaster and although Burton took home a hefty salary of 1.2 million, it was the beginning of a bad period for Richard as he notably took a slew of bad parts just to cash a check. Possibly after that fiasco, Britain was not ready for Burton playing bisexual again which is a pity, as they would’ve most likely had been impressed with this hard as nails fictional take on the real-life Ronnie Kray.   Audiences would have to wait almost twenty years for an actual biopic on the Krays, as director Peter Medak would enlist real life brothers Gary and Martin Kemp from the new wave group, Spandau Ballet to play Reggie and Ronnie. Who knows, given the recent successes of Nick Love and Ben Wheatley’s modern British gangster films, “Piggy” and “Down Terrace” respectively, we may see a new audience dust off “Villain” and give it the viewing it deserved in 1971.

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