Stanley Baker rivals James Bond in swinging style while he’s fresh out of prison planning a heist, but is at the mercy of thugs when things go wrong and he’s back behind bars.
The Criminal aka Concrete Jungle (1960) begins with Baker in prison, only a day away from being free, well respected in the prison hierarchy, and a powerful swinging bachelor when he’s back out. He immediately gets involved in a racetrack heist which doesn’t go wrong, surprisingly; it’s the aftermath that’s the mess, with one of the other participants demanding more money. Baker is smart enough to bury his dough in a field, but he buys his new girl a ring, and his old girl goes to the police. Baker goes back to prison where he’s knocked down a notch, harassed and brutalized by inside connections of the mob who want to know where his share of the loot is hidden. He’s even helped to escape so he can be followed to the spot, but anyone expecting reward is not getting it that easily.
On one hand The Criminal is a noir, with the backstabbing criminals and colourful prison characters and the doomed Baker living it up gangster style and then maneuvering to stay ahead of his fate. On the other hand the movie is a dark, depressing social commentary in which we’re meant to see the class order, racial tension and brutality of prison and the futility of reform once caught in those gears. Director Joseph Losey balances the two well enough, and indeed they naturally fit hand in glove, since the tough violent style used to treat doom and pessimism in noir also serves the gritty realism and hard truths of message pictures. But the picture also seems to straddle the two intentions a bit uncomfortably at times. The head guard played by Patrick Magee is more disturbing because he is a cruel authority figure with hints of sympathy. Many characters are presented in brief teasing glimpses, promising something interesting, and while they liven up the story some are almost cliched and not all are fleshed out as they could be, especially the women (Margit Saad, Jill Bennett).
Baker holds it all together, a solid and magnetic force given this juicy material to work with. That “other” Welsh star shows why he was a strong contender for the role of James Bond (he declined to avoid being tied to sequels) in his swinging bachelor pad scenes, with party and piano and pinup girl bathroom wallpaper (it’s so Austin Powers, yeah baby!) He’s brash but unsettled, scheming and tightly coiled, desperate and frantic at the end, and fascinating as ever; I never tire of watching him. Sam Wanamaker plays his weaselly “associate” with clear designs on taking over Baker’s powerful position in the criminal order, and arguably more obsessed with taking down Baker’s reputation and legendary status.
Lots of very familiar faces including Rupert Davies, Gregoire Aslan, Nigel Green, John Van Eyssen, Patrick Wymark, Edward Judd (who I happened to see soon after in First Men in the Moon). Lots of clever touches like hard to decipher but instinctively understood slang, coded messages and prison whispers hidden in schoolyard songs. Add to this a great ending befitting any of the best Hollywood noirs and a theme song by Cleo Laine plus “one riot, one transfer, one fast black car, total £40,000” equals one cool movie.