It’s not surprising that Losey developed a friendship with actor Stanley Baker, a working-class Welshman and committed socialist who shared many of the director’s political views. The two men made four impressive films together before Baker’s career was cut short by cancer at age 48 in 1976. Their joint credits include Blind Date (1959), Eva (1962) and Accident (1967) but Baker cited The Criminal as his most satisfying role. According to interviews, Hammer studio originally approached Baker with the idea of starring in the film based on a script written by Jimmy Sangster. Baker told the studio he would only do the film if Losey could direct but after reading the script, Losey claimed it was terrible and refused to do the film unless there were extensive rewrites. In the process, Hammer apparently lost interest but The Criminal eventually found a home at Merton Park Studios who agreed to produce it with a meager budget of $180,000.
Screenwriter Alun Owen (A Hard Day’s Night ) was asked to help cobble together a new script and together with Losey, Baker and set designer Richard Macdonald, the men formed a creative quartet and began doing extensive research into the British prison system and the criminal underworld that inhabited it. They visited penitentiaries while recording interviews with inmates and guards (a.k.a. “screws”), which allowed them to study convict slang, absorb their speaking habits and learn more about their backgrounds. They also met with inmate’s families and compiled location photos to use for reference. This information proved invaluable while they were developing the film, which has been described as being an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of prison life in 1960.
Stanley Baker was known to associate with British gangsters and he based his role on the infamous criminal enforcer, Albert Dimes. Baker and Dimes were both virile bruisers, rough and tumble ladies’ men with masculine appeal. Baker possessed the requisite square jaw and broad shoulders of a movie star while the sharp arch of his thick brows suggested something menacing just below the surface. No matter how hard he tried to shed his working-class origins by playing knights in shining armor or British Army officers, he always seemed to have one foot firmly rooted in the past.
In The Criminal, Baker delivers one of the best performances of his life as Johnny Bannion, a hoodlum caught in a cycle of crime who tries to escape the prison system only to discover that the outside world isn’t much different. Bad men maneuver through both but Bannion seems to find comfort in the predictability found behind prison walls. As a free man, he is less confident, more reserved and easily compromised. The commonality shared between Bannion’s prison life and home life is accentuated by his apartment. Despite the modern decor on display in his bachelor pad, the lack of windows, tawdry portraits of nude women and wide arches make it resemble a cell. In and out of jail, Baker expresses Bannion’s apprehensions and insecurities with very little dialogue. Instead, we’re presented with a portrait of a rugged brooding Irishman wound up so tight that he seems ready to burst at any moment. His unspoken anger is palpable and genuinely alarming. Sustaining the unpredictable nature of his character is vital as the film slowly marches towards its gripping conclusion and Baker’s character remains an enigma after the credits roll.
Besides Baker’s memorable turn as Johnny Bannion, the film features a host of skilled character actors in small but memorable roles. Patrick Magee, who also appeared in Zulu (1964) with Baker, is particularly notable as the sinister prison warden who seems to relish his position of power while mentally and physically torturing inmates. Losey’s fellow blacklist comrade, actor Sam Wanamaker (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ), is also impressive as Bannion’s sleazy colleague but the film is loaded with surprising and remarkably nuanced performances from everyone involved.
Jill Bennett (Lust for Life ) plays Bannion’s old flame and Margrit Saad (The Rebel ) is his latest love interest. In the world of The Criminal, women are depicted as superficial broads who use their femininity to entrap and corrupt men. They seem to only exist in Bannion’s imagination, seen through kaleidoscopes that shatter their appearance and splinter their identities or they’re discovered under satin bed sheets nude, helpless, and begging for masculine attention.
This will undoubtedly rub many modern viewers the wrong way but I believe they’re presented as the convicts see them. To men who spend most of their lives behind bars without female contact, women have become one-dimensional playthings. They hang silently on concrete walls endlessly smiling and seducing while providing hollow comfort and disposable pleasure. In The Criminal it’s nearly impossible to tell the real women from their paper likenesses that decorate jail cells.
Thanks to Losey’s lucid direction, The Criminal is a rich and rewarding film that improves with each viewing. It works well as a slow burn suspense yarn about a heist that goes wrong but it is also a cautionary tale about the corruption that takes place within and outside of the prison walls. In this bleak multilayered movie, there is very little difference between the free world and the incarcerated world. Both need and feed into one another, creating a system of brutal oppression that largely impacts the most desperate and risk-prone among us.
Losey also blatantly addresses his blacklisting experience in Hollywood by showing the ramifications of “squealing” in criminal society. Whistleblowers are not tolerated in the concrete jungle and are punished by being disposed of or shunned. Using long sustaining shots and extreme close-ups that produce a symbiotic relationship between viewers and the filmmaker, Losey brings us deep into the violent, erratic and threatening environment he’s created. Even though you may never have been incarcerated yourself, you understand what it’s like to have your back up against the wall. To feel trapped, bullied, oppressed and gripped at times by despair. An experience the director was undoubtedly all too familiar with.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published on March 16, 2017