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Villain review – Richard Burton's masterclass in nastiness | Film


Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are renowned for small-screen comic masterpieces such as Porridge and The Likely Lads, but in 1971 they scripted the deadly serious and horribly gripping London crime picture Villain, now rereleased on Blu-ray. It’s an extremely lairy and tasty piece of work in which Richard Burton gave one of his best, most lip-smackingly gruesome performances: this film’s easily as good as the far better known Get Carter with Michael Caine, released that same year.

Villain is based on the novel The Burden of Proof from pulp author James Barlow, reportedly an inspiration for Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm. Producer Elliot Krasner had originally commissioned a treatment from Hollywood actor-writer Al Lettieri, (who had played the drug lord Virgil Sollozzo in The Godfather), but Clement and La Frenais were vital in making the Brit idioms and London mannerisms work perfectly, with rhythm and snap.

Burton is the psychopathically violent gangster Vic Dakin, who runs a firm in west London and is tempted to try his luck in the unfamiliar discipline of armed robbery – director Michael Tuchner choreographs a spectacular scene when this turns into a car-crashing fiasco. Burton’s ruined handsomeness is uniquely disturbing, with that angle-grinder voice of his sneering and snarling with contempt; his broad face with its beady eyes and faintly pursed lips is a death mask of pure hostility.

The rest of the cast is a mouth-wateringly ripe buffet of that era’s character-acting talent, including Nigel Davenport as the tough copper on Dakin’s case, TP McKenna and Joss Ackland as Vic’s mob rivals, Ian McShane as the bisexual Wolfie, who deals drugs to the smart young things, pimps out his girlfriends to the high-ups and is himself Vic’s lover and kept man. Donald Sinden plays a creepy MP called Gerald Draycott, and Wolfie’s beautiful posh girlfriend, Venetia, is played by 60s it girl and author Fiona Lewis, who was later to publish a memoir, Mistakes Were Made, about her career in swinging London and Hollywood.

Dakin is a monster: a nightmarish mix of Ronnie Kray and Frankie Fraser. Like Ronnie, he loves his old mum, whom he lives with, earnestly bringing her cups of tea in the morning, with the old broadsheet News of the World under his arm, and taking her sentimentally down to Brighton of a Sunday for stroll to the pier and a plate of whelks. But, like Frankie Fraser, he has a passion for violence. The story also brings in elements of the creepy and corrupt ruling class, with figures evidently inspired by the Profumo case. Wolfie has a dodgy connection with the pompous politician Gerald Draycott (Sinden) who has a taste for sexual adventure and is thus highly susceptible to blackmail.

There is an unforgettably nasty scene when smarmy, cringing Draycott finds himself alone with Dakin in the gents’ lavatory of the gambling club that is part of his criminal empire. At first, terrified Draycott attempts small talk but backs away as Dakin sneeringly invades his body space, and Draycott finds himself standing in the urinal’s floor-level drain. For its pure transgressive nastiness, that image will live forever in your mind.

Villain has maybe been neglected because of a potential argument about homophobia; in some ways it appears to resemble Basil Dearden’s lowlife crime drama Victim, only without the “issue” pretext that made that brilliant film palatable. But the smug and hypocritical heterosexual family-man world of Draycott in this film is at least as bad. Villain is a classic.

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