Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Expendables UK Week - The British Gangster Movie in 10 Films

The British gangster movie has always been living in the shadows of American peers and recently you could even make a case for bigger, better movies coming from China and Japan but this hasn't stopped them. They're often more subtle in their approach towards underworld figures in Britain, they're not the type of people to laud Tony Montana or glorify the protection rackets of Triads, this is a Kingdom that appreciates the "honour amongst thieves" mantra, and didn't think that Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs should have had to serve time in prison when his loot ran out and healthy failed whilst exiled in Brazil after all. These guys are violent but their proud of their working class roots, they love their mums and they honour their Queen.

What I've tried to do is create a list of 10 key films (and several notables) from this genre in chronological order to track the development of British cinemas approach towards crime.

Brighton Rock (1947)

The most prominent example of early English crooks depicted in cinema, prior to this the Classification Board were very much against the portrayal of vice on screen. Richard Attenborough in his breakthrough role as teenaged gangster Pinkie, in this adaptation of the famous Graham Greene novel, is supremely menacing as he attempts to take control of criminal operations in Brighton.

Other notable films from this relatively fallow period include the Trevor Howard starring noir They Made Me A Fugitive (1947), the classic Jules Dassin noir Night and the City (1950) and the cautionary tale for young girls Good-Time Girl (1948).

Never Let Go (1960)

One of Peter Sellers finest roles; a part taken in direct opposition to his famed comedy performances of the time here he is a vicious and petty gang boss in what amounts to an extension of the social realism of the late 50s in literature, theatre and cinema - see Look Back in Anger, Life At The Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Other notable films from this period include two Stanley Baker movies Hell is a City (1960) which was based on the Martin Procter novel and the stark and uncompromising The Criminal (1960).

Get Carter (1971)

Based on the Ted Lewis novel and starring Michael Caine this was the first British film to offer a more realistic and gritty view of violence and criminal behaviour. Shot on location and drawing on real events for its visual style this is also notable for Carter showing no remorse for his actions.

Incredibly a Richard Burton film with similar style and themes, Villain (1971) was released at the same time and hasn't received as much fame but is well worth a look even if it's just for Burton's sadistic homosexual gangster.

The Long Good Friday (1979)

The 70s closed with a bang thanks to this classic of the genre. Taking note of the political atmosphere of the time Bob Hoskins stars as a London kingpin trying to legitimise his business but finds himself at war with a previously unknown enemy. It's bleak and uncompromising and violent but it is the performance of Bob Hoskins that makes this stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Did you know Mick Jagger was in movies? I haven't seen any of them but his 1970 film Performance is apparently worth watching and not just from a crime cinema point of view either.

The Hit (1984)

I only saw this film recently but it left a very large impression on me. Working almost as a response to the traditional view of the honest British crook this is the story of a supergrass and the retaliation by those he crossed. Directed by Stephen Frears and featuring a quite wonderful performance from Terence Stamp this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan directs Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine and Robbie Coltrane. You need more? There's a romance between a released criminal and a prostitute that leads to some violent consequences. It's a standard story but told well and with some great performances.

The debut feature from Mike Figgis, Stormy Monday (1988), revisits the locale of Get Carter but with a turf war between local gangster and a pushy American in Tommy Lee Jones.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Revived and reinvigorated the genre for a couple of years before the entire thing collapsed under its own weight of mockney nonsense, mirroring the career of Guy Ritchie. Nevertheless the original is still the best and without this film Hollywood wouldn't have Jason Statham.

This film could stand in for Snatch (2000), Layer Cake (2004)Love Honour and Obey (2000), Gangster No. 1 (2000) and many more films you might have thought sounded good but actually were unimaginative rehashes of the same thing.

Sexy Beast (2000)

This is one of the greats of recent times because it takes its cues from the past, enhances them and then deviates in multiple interesting new ways. Featuring brilliant performances all round but notably from Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley this is the story of a retired gangster cajoled in to doing one last job but things are not that straight forward. To tell you more would be to spoil the fun but it's not what you expect.

Other interesting examples that didn't make the main ten include Face (1997) which was lost in the hype surrounding Lock, Stock and the wonderful yet painful London to Brighton (2006).

Bronson (2008)

Chosen as a great example of how how the Brits turn their criminals in to celebrities, this Nicholas Winding Refn directed biopic features a superb performance from Tom Hardy as the most famous British criminal since Ronnie Kray.

Down Terrace (2009)

Ben Wheatley just might be the future of the genre and even British cinema. This was his debut feature and it's quite simply superb. A cinema verite style gangster film that is both insanely funny and incredibly violent, it moves at a very fast pace and surprises you throughout. Very intelligent movie making about the internal politics of a crime family. Reviewed here in 2011.

So that's your lot, how many have you seen? Have I missed anything important? Enjoying Expendables UK Week so far? Comment comment comment!


  1. Great picks here buddy. Get Carter, Long Good Friday (love that one), Mona Lisa (Hoskins’ best performance…?), Lock Stock and ESPECIALLY Sexy Beast, one of my all-time favorites.

    Excellent write-up.

    1. The pair of Bob Hoskins movies is kind of surprising, I don't think he revisited those type of roles after Mona Lisa and so I tend not to think of him as that guy but yeah if it's not Mario Bros then it's Mona Lisa as his best performance.

  2. I've heard of most of these titles, but I have only seen Bronson. Guess that's a sign that says I should watch these and soon.

    1. If you like the genre then you're in for a treat as you play catch up as these are some of the best from all countries not just the UK.

  3. Yay! I love Never Let Go. Sellers is great in it.

    Other than that, I've only seen Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Sexy Beast, and Bronson. I enjoyed all of them, so I really need to give these others a look at some point.

    1. I was about to say at least see Get Carter and Brighton Rock but that would be unfair on some really great movies, I think it very unlikely that any of the main ten would disappoint and the notables are all top quality examples from quite a packed field.

  4. In my view, there is a strong thing in British gangster movies. These are amazing to watch. Have you seen “Bronson” released in 2008? It is a great movie and the performance of the main casting stars is fabulous. Watch soon, if can.