By the late 1960s, a lot of critics were shaking their heads in dismay and writing the obits for Richard Burton's career. He was, to their mind, a great actor who had simply squandered his talent on unwise choices. An actor whose best known role was not as they had hoped, the Shakespearean greats, but was instead that of Mr Elizabeth Taylor in the ongoing, glitzy and gaudy pantomime of their marriage. They were Brangelina, they were Kim and Kanye, they were Posh and Becks. They were all those and more; the celebrity power couple before the term had even been coined and, in that less celeb crazed time, Burton being so high profile meant just one thing to the critics - wasted potential.
But the critics were wrong. Granted, Burton made some truly horrible decisions from the late 1960s and up until his untimely death in 1984, there were roles in populist fare that kept him from treading the boards where they felt his talent thrived and yes, he often sleepwalked through some of these appearances, but he was far from washed up. Because when Burton felt the material was worth it, he gave it his all and when he did, he was capable of turning in a fine performance that positively crackled upon the screen. His role in Villain of gangland kingpin Vic Dakin here, allows for just such a performance - a role so meaty he could truly get his teeth into and enjoy it with absolute relish.
When we talk of classic British gangster movies, we talk of Get Carter (which Villain came hot on the heels of) and The Long Good Friday; films which benefit from two truly iconic gangster characters in Michael Caine's enforcer Jack Carter and Bob Hoskins' mob boss Harold Shand. These are characters which can stand comfortably alongside the greats from Hollywood, the home of the traditional gangster genre, with Caine as chillingly cobra-eyed as a Bogart or Raft, and Hoskins as snarlingly feral as Edward G Robinson. It's a shame therefore that Villain isn't as well known and as celebrated as these two films, because in Burton's Dakin we perhaps have our own James Cagney. Just look at that final speech he has here, it's right up there. Seriously, by the time the credits roll you won't care that Burton couldn't really do a cockney accent. He is Vic Dakin, and that demands your respect.
Dakin is a gloriously complex and creepy monster, obviously inspired by the Kray twins (who had been convicted of murder the year prior to filming) though with a particular emphasis on the certifiable Ronnie. When we first meet him he suggests a girl makes a cup of tea whilst he busies himself slashing her boyfriend's face off, his vicious nature also spares room for a sneering contempt for the ordinary nine to fivers of society ("Stupid punters - telly all week, screw the wife Saturdays") but at the same time this taciturn tough is utterly devoted to his dear old mum, who he treats like a mixture of royalty and precious bone china, taking her down to Brighton every weekend, feeding her whelks and then - as Nigel Davenport's detective remarks - drives home at 30mph to ensure she doesn't get hiccups.
As with all our cinematic gangsters Dakin makes a fatal mistake that sees his power snatched away from him. Receiving a tip off from one of the clients of his lucrative protection racket, Dakin and his firm try their hand at armed robbery, with disastrous consequences. But this overreaching error isn't borne of some ambitious desire to expand his empire; Dakin's folly stems from the fact that he is starting to feel his (middle) age, and fears he is seen to be going soft in the eyes of Ian McShane's young chancer, Wolf. And going soft is the last thing he wants when it comes to Wolf, because he's in the middle of a rather tempestuous love affair with the younger man.
Burton claimed he had no trouble pretending he fancied McShane, indeed he said he found it rather easy because he reminded him of Elizabeth Taylor! I always get envious watching Ian McShane films from the '70s because Burton was spot on, he was such a handsome fella, I wish I looked like him back then!
Gritty and atmospheric, Villain is wonderfully evocative of '70s London with its crisp location shooting and its fashions of flares, roll neck sweaters and sideburns. Those long-gone London streets are populated by a great number of character actors and familiar faces that offer up an instant nostalgia hit to any British viewer of a certain age, and they deliver bluntly authentic dialogue (shocking in its day I presume) that came from the pen of no less a writing partnership than Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, better known for their comedies such as The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
Directed by first-timer Michael Tuchner, this is an acutely-observed piece with a great sense of place and character. It's a shame that Tuchner's potential never seemed to be achieved after this - he crossed the pond and back a few times to produce a series of TV movies and low budget offerings, some of them over here being good (the Play for Today Bar Mitzvah Boy, and reuniting with Clement and La Frenais to make the big screen spin off of The Likely Lads in '76) but most of them over there seem decidedly humdrum (Hart to Hart revivals and several movies of the week) along with some you simply struggle to categorise (Mr Quilp - a musical adaptation of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, and the Smith and Jones vehicle Wilt) He did make the big screen adaptation of Alistair MacLean's Fear is the Key the year after this though, and that's on my to-watch list.
In conclusion, whilst Villain isn't the British crime drama that deserves immediate reappraisal (that is of course Peter Yates' brilliant Great Train Robbery inspired 1967 film Robbery) it is nonetheless worth your time for a truly interesting lead performance by Burton and some really authentic progressive moves in the crime genre (the homosexual gangster, his seedy connections to parliament, the decline of old fashioned crime and uncompromising dialogue) But the downside is that its narrative is just too small-fry compared to Get Carter and The Long Good Friday and that is why ultimately it remains in the shadows.