Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
The Best British Gangster Movies
It was a noteworthy bonding exercise for my relatively uptight dad to take me along with him to see Guy Ritchie’s first feature, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. I was a mere thirteen at the time of its release, and while not a year later he’d be dropping me off at the theater on Friday nights (and procuring R-rated tickets for very underage-looking me), it meant something to see a quasi-violent, foul-mouthed offering with a man who, for all intents and purposes, would elect to shield me from such content (I was basically never allowed to see anything R-rated, ever). It was a movie I liked, but I didn’t fall in love. I had no idea, though, at the time, that I was acquainting myself with what would soon become one of my all-time favorite genres: the British gangster flick.
Ritchie, as downright hokey as his style may be, helped revive an exploration of this genre with his series of films populated with cartoonish thugs. In hindsight, his style may trade too heavily in the schlock of goofy heist films like the original The Italian Job rather than true ice-cold gangster fare. I’m no Anglophile, but there’s something almost exotic about the U.K.’s established class disparity from which such hoods arise, not to mention the way these films dissect colonialism, race, and gender dynamics through tensions sometimes quite foreign to an American audience. What follows is a brief list of choice British gangster titles—sure, money might get stolen here and there, and awkward chuckles may surface from nowhere, but these are non-heist, straight devastating crime dramas peppered with genius villains, archetype-shattering femme fatales, and hapless sociopaths. It should be said, however, that this is a genre so plentiful it’s impossible to master. (Nota bene: There will be several personnel and stylistic overlaps in these movies, thus making the combination of any two perfect for a double-feature kind of evening, should you be so inclined.)
1. Croupier (1998, dir. Mike Hodges)
While this movie has less gangster and more con, the organized-crime connotations serve as a taut backdrop for much of the plot action. Although made in the same year as Ritchie’s first film, Croupier didn’t appear in a stateside release until two years later, when I first beheld it at the age of sixteen. It’s also worth mentioning that this would be, presumably, both my and the U.S.’s introduction to the titillating Clive Owen, whose hollow cheeks and wide, hopeful green eyes render him almost unrecognizable in his youth. Owen plays a struggling writer, Jack Manfred, who, desperate for money, returns to his old gig as a croupier (European for casino dealer). He’d originally quit because he was fed up with the seediness of the gambling world, not to mention some daddy issues with his sloppy criminal/gambling-addict father. Shortly after reinstalling himself at a casino, however, everything goes to pieces, and Jack finds his police-detective girlfriend has left him, he’s seduced by a woman in debt to the mob (the goddess-bodied Alex Kingston), and he’s begrudgingly pressured to facilitate a robbery at the casino of his employment. All of these traits may verge on your standard-issue crime thriller, but recall that Jack is a writer; in a delicious turn on the noir trope of a voiceover, we now have the keen observational power and the untrustworthiness of a raconteur guiding our tale.
2. Mona Lisa (1986, dir. Neil Jordan)
It’s probably safe to assume that you, man or woman, have probably never been physically attracted to the balding, stout, and vertically challenged actor, Bob Hoskins, most often known for his belligerent, Napoleonically pugnacious characters. Believe me, it’s understandable, but there are a couple of 1980s gangster pictures, I would argue, that may change your mind. Foremost, in the slick Mona Lisa, we have his George, a newly sprung heavy looking for work in the only business he knows. Unfortunately, his profile has been reduced to the point that the only work he can find is the humiliating task of chauffeuring around a svelte, high-class black prostitute, Simone (Cathy Tyson). Of course, George is the clumsily passionate single father of a sweet little girl, and can’t help his chivalrous instinct from interfering with business as usual. As he cultivates a warm rapport with Simone, if not some sexual feelings as well, he finds himself spiraling farther into her world, her mystery, and her obsessions. Mind you, there’s no hooker with a heart of gold here, just solid stone. This film also captures Michael Caine in one of his reptilian, sociopathic, pre-avuncular roles, as I much prefer him (The Muppet Christmas Carol excluded, but, we might as well face it—he’s still playing an asshole in that one).
3. The Long Good Friday (1980, dir. John Mackenzie)
Happy Easter, by the way! If you, like me, have a perverse love for holiday movies that are less holiday-themed than they are coincidentally set at that particular time of year (see previously: Blast of Silence as Christmas movie) then I introduce this gangster thriller as your new filmic companion to Christ’s resurrection.
Bob Hoskins also leads this one, now inhabiting a very straight role as ambitious London syndicate boss Harold Shand. Harold’s just returned from a trip to New York, where he’s hoping to expand his operations. He arrives on Good Friday, just in time for an elaborate yacht party welcoming his potential U.S. affiliates for the weekend. The party is engineered by his divinely all-class girlfriend and de facto consigliere, Victoria (the absolutely untouchable Helen Mirren). In a perfect subversion of all moll clichés, Victoria speaks fluent French, has her own money, and is profoundly, unfathomably devoted to Harold. Their respectful romantic collaboration is enough to convince anyone that Harold’s really got it going on. With the perfect companion and the perfect front, what could possibly go wrong with this business deal? For starters, there’s a car-bomb attempt outside of the church where Harold’s mother is attending Good Friday services. And then one of Harold’s right-hand men turns up brutally slain in an athletic-club shower. Harold’s getting flustered and starting to look weak to his associates: As his foundering increases, so does the violence, as is usually the case. In one of the most chilling and unexpected gangster-meeting scenes of all time, Harold arranges an extensive thug roundup in, of all places, a giant abattoir. If we needed a metaphor for the devaluing of human life happening in this film, a slaughterhouse might be the perfect vehicle for it. Also, I should mention that the movie’s theme song, composed and performed by Francis Monkman, is completely badass—Miami Vice, eat your heart out.
4. The Hit (1984, dir. Stephen Frears)
If The Long Good Friday details the opening chess moves of a gangster’s undoing, then The Hit is the depiction of his painfully slow demise. Taking more cues from the nauseatingly halting plot of a samurai epic than a traditional noir, The Hit is fresh because it feels like a weirdly Zen version of a gangster movie. It stars the always-a-bridesmaid-but-never-a-bride Terence Stamp as Willie Parker, an erstwhile thug who betrays his comrades in court and thereafter hides out making a quiet life for himself in rural Spain. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before Willie gets his due, this time at the hands of a totally bloodless John Hurt, as hapless hit man Braddock. You may think you’ve experienced John Hurt in all his slippery demon-voiced ire, but Braddock is a true top-ten villain, not because he’s sympathetic (although, how can you blame him for wanting to take down a traitor?), but because his violence is so subdued and poker-faced, it makes him frighteningly unpredictable. Hurt’s famous voice barely delivers any lines, and it’s for good reason—young Tim Roth, playing Braddock’s apprentice, Myron, fills in the awkward silences in one of his many roles as a hot-tempered little punk-ass. Braddock and Myron embark on a tense, sloppy journey, transporting Willie back to Paris where, presumably, he will be executed by his former colleagues. Willie seems annoyingly at peace with his impending demise, however, and shirks any erratic intimidation tactics Braddock and Myron inflict on him. That is, until the very end, when absolutely everyone manages to lose their cool.
5. Get Carter (1971, dir. Mike Hodges)
Because why not? If you asked anyone who cared about British gangster movies, Hodges’s feature-film debut is considered a hands-down classic, if not the best of all time. While its characters lack some intrigue and depth, Get Carter does possess two definite, winning features: 1) a Chandleresque plot that the audience unravels at the pace of its hectoring protagonist, and 2) Michael Caine’s Jack Carter, the aforementioned hectoring protagonist, whose compulsive willingness to torture makes a bad dude like Braddock look like a simpering babysitter. This is a revenge plot, as Carter sets out to Newcastle to uncover the circumstances of his brother’s inexplicable demise, but toss in some curveballs like a sadistic phone-sex scene with one of cinema’s babes-of-all-time, Britt Ekland, and you have a disarmingly good nail-biter, in which all the micro-miniskirts in the world can’t impede Carter’s icy vengeance.