One of my favourite British gangster films, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter, is 50 years old. It premiered in the UK in the northern British city of Newcastle, where it was filmed, on March 7, and in the US on March 18. I have penned a piece for a prominent crime fiction/related site on the influence of Get Carter on crime cinema, but am not exactly sure when this will come out. For now, I thought the film’s half century anniversary was as good a time as any to hit you with my top 10 British gangster films.
They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
I wrote about They Made Me a Fugitive in some length on this site here. It was one of a trio of early post-war British gangster films that caused a stir with censors, the others being No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Brighton Rock, both of which appeared in 1948. Fugitive stars Trevor Howard as Clem Morgan, a demobbed Royal Air Force pilot who reluctantly joins a criminal gang headed by a flash gangster with a very nasty streak, Narcy, but baulks when his discovers his new employer is into drug trafficking. What I love about this film, and the aspect that attracted the most critical condemnation when it first appeared, is its depiction of the poverty and desperation of post-war British life.
No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948)
Based on the controversial James Hadley Chase book of the same name, this film makes my list simply because it is so bizarre. An American-style gangster film set in a fictitious large American city but actually made in the UK with a largely British cast (well known Carry On franchise star Sid James as a barman in a glitzy gangster own nightclub is just one of many familiar faces). If you want to know more I wrote about the film and the book it was based on last year for the US site CrimeReads.
Never Let Go (1960)
I suspect that John Guillermin’s Never Let Go is one of the lesser known titles on this list. I have seen this proto-vigilante film several times and just love it. A put upon cosmetics salesman under economic pressure (Richard Todd) is forced to take drastic action when his car – essential to keeping his job – is stolen by a group of young toughs with links to a glitzy, vicious gangster (Peter Sellers at his venal best) and the police are, at best, inactive. A deceptively hard British noir. The ending in particular packs a real emotional punch.
The Criminal (1960)
Stanley Baker as a tough criminal under pressure from associates to reveal where he has hidden the proceeds of a racetrack robbery. Apparently modelled on real-life Soho villain Alfred Dimer, this was one of six films Baker did with blacklisted Hollywood director, Joseph Losey. The Criminal seamlessly combines the heist, prison and gangster film.
Stanley Baker again in Peter Yates’s fictional retelling of the Great Train Robbery. Baker plays Paul Clifton, recently out of jail and trying to corral his gangster backers and criminal colleagues into the heist of a lifetime, while dealing with the unwanted attention of the police and a failing marriage to the stunning Joanna Pettet. Not only a great gangster film but a superb heist film.
Richard Burton as Vic Dakin, a gay, misanthropic, homicidal, Tory gangster whose time at the top of the London underworld heap is coming to an end. Oh, and did I say, how much he loves his old mum? If you want to know more, I wrote about this wonderful slice of early 1970s British cinema nastiness on this site here back in 2014.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
A long time ago I had a lengthy argument on Twitter with crime writer Ray Banks about what was the best British gangster film. I was in the Get Carter corner, he was pushing for The Long Good Friday. Many years later I am happy to admit he was right. Stunning performances by Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand and Helen Mirren as his tough but caring partner and, without doubt, the best execution of the long running trope in British crime cinema of the working class gangster as wannabe ruling class right-wing entrepreneur. And also, what about that stunning final scene in the back of the taxi? Here’s a little appreciation of this film I did to mark the passing of Hoskins in 2014.
The Who frontman Roger Daltry stars as John McVicar, a real life 1960s armed robber and at one time Scotland Yard’s ‘public enemy number one’. Supposedly based McVicar’s book, McVicar by Himself, the film is split into two halves. The first sees McVicar plotting his jail escape between prison riots and bouts of guard brutality. Once out, he kicks starts a troubled relationship with his wife and young son and hatches a plan to escape to Canada. But to do this he needs money and the only skills he has are criminal. Plenty of old school London villains and a great soundtrack courtesy of its star, Daltry.
The Krays (1990)
The Krays really deserve a gong of some sort for services to British crime fiction and film. I am not sure how many times they have been depicted on the screen, as either themselves or as the inspiration for someone else. Whatever the case this 1990 effort is my pick as the best Kray film. While Gary and Martin Kemp are good as Ronald and Reggie Kray respectively, The Krays belongs to Billie Whitelaw as their loving and ruthless mum, Violet Kray. There is also a great supporting cast, headed up by Steven Berkoff’s wonderful turn as the Kray’s gangster rival, George Cornell.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Look, I have said it before on this site and I will say it again, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast is the last decent British gangster film ever made. No argument. If you want to know my reasons for this, you can check out this post from a few years ago in which I first made this assertion.