Villain — 50 Years On
It’s hard not to mention Get Carter (1971) when discussing Villain; critics did it when the film was released, anyone reappraising the movie can’t help doing it now. The films came out within two months of one another in 1971, and they both feature two bona fide movie stars minted in Hollywood, coming back to the UK to play violent English gangsters. While the former is hailed as a classic Villain rarely receives such plaudits. But it’s well worth another look.
Richard Burton’s Vic Dakin is every inch the anti-hero, a ruthless gangster who can inflict fear with merely a look but often throws a punch to the kidneys in for good measure. Critics throw shade at the son of Port Talbot’s cockney accent, but what Burton brought with him to every role was a presence, and it’s here in spades. The character has to invoke respect or fear by just walking into a room, and Burton embodies it in every scene.
Dakin’s suited and booted gang indulge in shady dealings at the bottom and top of society, from gambling dens to country houses. They move through a world of pimps, grasses, inside men and corrupt politicians. Dakin runs a protection racket, which allows him an alibi for every occasion, frustrating the police in their every attempt to bang him up. But in addition to viciously carving up those who cross him, Dakin also loves his old mum, to such a degree that the police know his movements every Sunday as he always takes her down to the seafront at Brighton for a plate of whelks. ‘He can’t be all bad then can he?’ copper Binney (Colin Welland) comments to his boss.
The source material was James Barlow’s 1968 novel Burden of Proof. In the Sunday Telegraph, Ronald Hayman called it, ‘One of the best crime stories I have ever read…written with insight, sympathy and uncanny authenticity.’ H.R.F. Keating in The Times said it was, ‘Literate, knowledgable, stencil black.’ Barlow developed an ear for dialogue while visiting houses, offices, airports and other places in his day job as a rating inspector for the City of Birmingham Water Department. He even designed a cataloguing system for the conversations he earwigged on for use in his books.
While the novel focused on the entire criminal justice system, producers Alan Ladd Jr and Elliot Kastner wanted a narrower focus. They enlisted actor and screenwriter Al Lettieri, best known as The Godfather (1972)’s Virgil Sollozzo, to adapt. An odd choice to take on an English story, although Lettieri was in real life connected to the mafia through marriage.
Dick Clement had directed A Severed Head (1970) for their Winklast production company, and he was asked to direct. Clement felt the script was terrible and turned the opportunity down. The producers asked Clement and his writing partner Ian La Frenais to rewrite it. “We must have done a good job because the next thing we heard was another director had been signed, and Richard Burton was going to play the lead,” La Frenais wrote in the writers’ joint autobiography A Likely Story.
Kastner brought the script to Mexico, where Burton was filming Raid on Rommel (1971). In his diaries, Burton wrote of the script, ‘“It’s a racy sadistic London piece about cops and robbers — the kind of ‘bang bang — calling all cars’ stuff that I’ve always wanted to do and never have. It could be more than that depending on the director.”
The director was Michael Tuchner, who had directed much for television, including some episodes of The Wednesday Play (1964–1970). Villian would mark his movie debut. To get the job, Tuchner would have to pass a test set by Burton. The actor handed him an old photograph showing a group of Welsh schoolboys and asked him to pick out the young Burton. Tuchner succeeded.
The Times reported on 11 September 1970 that Burton would take no salary but a share of the box office points. He returned to Britain after a year’s absence for the shoot. His wife Elizabeth Taylor was also in London shooting X, Y and Zee (1972) with Michael Caine.
Although Burton is very much the movie’s focus, it’s an ensemble piece, with no weak link in the cast. Ian McShane, looking not dissimilar to the football star of the day George Best, sparkles as the grifting pimp Wolfe Lissner, Dakin’s lover and the only man he feels he can trust. Cathleen Nesbitt is Dakin’s old mum, the actress, then in her eighties, had portrayed the mother of Burton’s character two years earlier in Staircase (1969) and Cary Grant’s grandmother in An Affair to Remember (1957). Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland led the coppers. Davenport had a long career behind him, with roles in A Man For All Seasons (1966) and The Virgin Soldiers (1969) among his credits. Welland was best known as PC David Graham on the popular police television series Z Cars (1962–1978). TP McKenna, Donald Sinden, Tony Selby and Joss Ackland bulked up the cast.
The film was shot in London, Surrey and Brighton, and takes place almost entirely in daylight, allowing even the grimiest of locations to look good. The cinematographer was Christopher Challis, who boasted an impressive CV working behind the lens for Powell and Pressburger, Joseph Losey, Billy Wilder, Stanley Donen and Blake Edwards.
Villain’s central plot revolves around a wages heist. It’s out of Dakin’s comfort zone and out of his manor, but with the local crew’s help and some insider information, he feels he can take it on. “Got away with it, that’s the whole point. Always did. Always have. Knew how to do it. Took care. We’re the guv’nors, Frank? Aren’t we the guv’nors?” Vic tells Frank (TP McKenna) to convince him the risk is worth it. But then a clerks strike puts the timings out of whack. The heist takes place in the sunshine outside the Southern Industrial Area in Bracknell. The action and the chaotic getaway are staged superbly.
There are some lovely character touches in even the most minor roles. Dakin goes to meet “That geezer in the wages department” the inside man on the job, lowly clerk Brown (James Cossins) who sits on a park bench with his sandwiches and Thermos flask whinging to a disinterested Vic about his lot, the lack of respect he receives both at work and at home. “Who cares about the firm? They turn over millions…if they get it, I’ll enjoy every minute of it.”
Burton spoke to Ronald Hayman of The Times on the set about the reputation he had developed. “I’m aware of the impact of my personality on a director, or Elizabeth’s, or the combined forces, which as you can imagine, are formidable. So, over roughly the last [three] years, I’ve deliberately taken impertinents as directors — four in a row. Michael Tuchner is the fifth. And each one of them has turned out to be successful in his different way. Because they didn’t give a damn about Richard Burton…They simply said, ‘No, no, no, I’m afraid you have to do this.’”
With reputation, Burton also came with baggage. La Frenais recalls his entourage, ensuring the producers he was ‘off the sauce’, but all that meant was he had become better at hiding when he was on it.
Challis was asked about working with Burton by Film International. “I always got on with him. If he wasn’t ready to shoot through drink, there was nothing I could do about it. Sometimes he couldn’t remember his lines. It was a tragedy, really because he was a wonderful actor. It didn’t show on the screen because we had to shoot round it or not use him when he was in that sort of state.”
In The Independent, Ian McShane spoke of how Burton saw a kindred spirit in him. “He taught me to drink vodka, which was good of him. I needed no help learning how to drink, but I found vodka with Richard. We’d start off in the morning, and I’d have kippers at breakfast, and he’d say: ‘You know, a much better way to start the day is with a salty dog — vodka and grapefruit juice.’ The day would progress from there to vodka and orange juice, and vodka straight by lunchtime. It was a very happy set.”
On release, Vilain suffered mixed fortunes. For one, the New York Times hated it, while in fulsome praise, the Sunday Mirror wrote, “Villain pulls absolutely no punches. I cannot remember a film that lays so bare the sordid realities of crime.”
Burton remarked on the cultural divide in his diary entry for 17 August 1971. “There is no accounting for the differing tastes of the Yanks and English critics. Villain was received badly in the US and with rapture in the UK. I know it is cockney and therefore difficult for Yanks to follow but one would have thought the critics to be of sufficiently wide education to take it in their stride. Anyway, I am so delighted it is doing well in the UK. I thought it was good and E said she knew it was good.”
While Villain will never be held up as one of Burton’s best performances, and the violence is enough to turn some stomachs, the witty script, strong cast and striking visuals are enough for any gangster film fan to sit down with it.