Readers of a certain age will remember the terms ‘pan and scan’; it related to re-shaping wide-screen films for the square box of television, which from the 70’s onwards, gave networks carte blanche to ruin the films they showed. So when I watched Michael Tuchner’s Villain in the 1980’s, I thought it a squalid gangster film with little merit other than to committed fans of the decline of star Richard Burton. Decades later, a BFI restored blu-ray arrives to correct my erroneous opinion.
Burton puts on a cockney accent to play Vic Dakin, an amalgam of the notorious Kray twins featured in various films, including Tom Hardy’s dual turn in Legend. Dakin takes good care of his aging mother, but otherwise is an utter weapon, a menace to society, a pathological narcissist using a bent for violence as a means to enforce his gang-land empire. Top-cop Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport) is onto him, and starts to pull at the threads of Dakin’s empire, including a corrupt MP (Donald Sinden) with a weakness of procured young women, and Dakin’s bi-sexual lover, played by John Wick and Deadwood star Ian McShane. Dakin is keen to organise the pay-roll robbery of a plastics factory before they can organise an armoured car, but when the heist goes violently wrong, Dakin’s web of corruption starts to teeter on the brink of collapse.
‘Meet Vic Dakin. Then wish you hadn’t…’ is an odd advertising line used to promote the film, but it conveys one central idea; that Dakin is a very nasty piece of work. The feel for corruption is hard won; adapted from James Barlow’s book The Burden of Proof by Godfather actor Al Lettieri, the script was re-written by comedy specialists Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, who created a brusque, serio-comic tone that led the way for British tv shows like The Sweeney. Dakin constantly rails at how everyone else is constantly watching tv, munching on chewy sweets (‘Super-fruits’) and mixes close-up violence with pithy one-liners. “You forgot your shopping,’ he mutters as one potential victim scurries away.
As a film, Villain wasn’t loved at the time, but now seems a bridge between traditional British policiers and the more modern take on criminality featured in, say, The Long Good Friday. The intention was to take inspiration from James Cagney in White Heat, but the result has a vitality of it’s own, largely due to a script that is slippery enough to avoid clichés. The portrayal of Dakin’s homosexuality is muted, but that’s probably a good thing in this case; with the same sinister music used for sex as murder, it’s clear that the film-makers viewed Dakin’s sexuality as a weakness. The film ends with a notable fourth-wall break and Dakin scowling at the camera, shouting ‘What are you looking at?’ It’s an abrasive end for a shocking look at a criminal underclass that many of the cast were well aware of from personal experience of the Krays.
So, what are we looking at here? It’s 1971, and permissiveness on screen allows an unpleasant yet familiar idea to be understood in cinema. Villain portrays a criminal class who control politicians through honey-traps set via sex-parties; the same subject that Kubrick thought important enough for his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut. Several A List directors have described to me how they believe similar events are used to blackmail and control public figures; in the Jeffrey Epstein era, the notion that the erratic behaviour of today’s political figures may be connected to their private vices is nothing new.