Wonderfully off-kilter gangster film that feels like a bridge between British comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1971, Charles Chrichton) and the grittier British crime films that would emerge in the 1970s’ and 80s.’ Villain manages to be both disturbingly violent and very funny. It’s written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais who are best known for their sitcoms Porridge and The Likely Lads and have a real feel for the English working-class life. Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) is an East End gangster with a violent reputation and a sentimental side. He’ll carve up a grass and display him outside a building like an ornament, but he’s always pleased if you ask how his old mum is doing.
It’s in the pub we get a sense of how he is viewed by those around him. Dakin walks in with his crew and chats happily enough to the landlord about the football and buys an auld fella a drink. He’s more guarded when it comes to work. Vic made his reputation through running protection rackets and one of his clients/victims offers up a potential money earner. Danny (Anthony Sagar) is clearly scared of Dakin and trying to avoid upsetting him. Dakin is focused, polite, but only ever asks Danny questions about the job in hand giving him nothing more. After all it’s business. Danny runs a strip club and a punter has tipped him off about a security detail carrying the payroll for a plastics factory who have yet to upgrade to an armoured van.
However Danny is also being leaned on by the Met, specifically Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport) who’s been after Dakin for years but can never find anybody willing to testify in court. Matters are further complicated by Dakin having to team up with a rival firm led by Frank Fletcher (T.P. McKenna) and his brother-in-law Edgar (Joss Ackland) to perform the heist. Extortion and violence may be part of his repertoire but Dakin and his crew have never attempted an armed robbery.
Dakin is also infatuated with Wolfie (Ian McShane), a young hustler who makes a living as a pimp and pusher for the rich set. One such client is Draycott (Donald Sinden), a high-profile politician with a reputation as something of a moral crusader. Dakin loathes him and explodes with rage when he finds Draycott in one of his clubs. “What’s he doing here? He’s an MP isn’t he? I mean the whole country looks up to him.”
For somebody who makes his money from crime Dakin has some rather old-fashioned views, even chastising Wolfie for selling “poppers at four in the morning to little Soho scrubbers.” He’s a contradiction then, but given the character is a composite of both Kray twins these extreme contrasts make sense. Burton keeps Dakin still for most encounters but in the scenes where he explodes with violence he goes wildly over the top, arms windmilling as he repeatedly kicks a man on the stairs or the deranged leer he shows to a croupier before slicing his face with a razor. Davenport matches him with a turn that reminded me of Ben Johnson’s Texas Ranger in Dillinger (1973). Easy-going almost to the point of joviality, but relentless in pursuit of his man.
The heist proves to be farcical. A mixture of slapstick comedy and bone-crunching violence as the the three security guards fight back against Dakin and his men injuring Fletcher in the bloody confrontation. Though they escape with the money thick red smoke from the payroll’s anti-theft security system fills their getaway car forcing them to ditch it and carjack another driver. Dakin figured Edgar for a weak link when he ordered off menu at a fancy French restaurant. These are vicious men, but they are also kind of stupid. Edgar hides out in his own house, nabbed after his wife forgets to clear a dinner table set for two. Matthews finds him in the garage. “Come in Edgar. It’s warmer in here. And you haven’t finished your milk.”
Reviews for Villain back in the day were poor. Maybe it was too close to real events coming only a few years after The Krays were jailed . Critics didn’t seem to like seeing a glamorous figure like Burton playing a seedy East End gangster or the film’s violence. Burton’s star power contrasts with the drabness of his surroundings making Dakin a believably larger-than-life personality. The dialogue wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Likely Lads. “Good night on the telly tonight, Donald O’Connor and Vera Allen,” says one of the gangsters at a gangland meet-up. It’s that idiosyncratic Britishness that makes it work. Villain might not be as polished as Get Carter (71, Mike Hodges) but it’s a fascinating snapshot of London in the 70s’.