Like Cy Endfield, who directed The Sound of Fury, Joseph Losey found himself in Britain after being blacklisted by HUAC. That Losey fell foul of McCarthy’s witch hunts wasn’t surprising as he’d collaborated with, amongst others, Bertolt Brecht in America and he brings a Brechtian sensibility to this superb prison film. The most striking instance is when one of the inmates, who is on the verge of insanity, starts rambling on incoherently and the men stand still behind as the light dips. This is Brechtian as it draws attention to itself as a film and eschews the ‘invisible’ fourth wall. Another technique is a calypso singer, also a prisoner, commenting on the action a couple of times.
Losey’s superb direction isn’t the only reason this is a gripping film. Stanley Baker’s criminal finds himself ‘out of time’ as the crime business becomes just that: a corporate way to make money rather than individual mavericks who make it up as they go along. Baker’s trademark ‘bubbling volcano’, he seems about to blow but just restrains himself, is perfect for the role of Bannion who resigns himself to 10 years in prison in return for his pension (which he has buried) of £40,000.
Losey apparently wanted to set whole film ‘inside’, however the producers wished otherwise and the scenes outside are excellent. Robert Krasker’s (he also shot The Third Man, 1948) cinematography is brilliant giving a hard, cold edge to the exteriors that are perfect for, in particular, the snow-bound field of the climax. Women are pretty much sidelined, but then it was a macho world; Margit Saad is convincing as the ‘tart with a heart’ who almost melts Bannion’s steel-encased exterior. The shot of her naked bum must have been risqué for the time. Saad was German and I guess, like Simone Signoret, in Room At the Top (1959), is was deemed okay to portray ‘loose’ women as long as they were foreign. There is a small role for Dorothy Bromiley (I think) – she seems never to have had anything other than small roles in cinema – who is brilliant as a gobby friend of Bannion’s ex; shame there isn’t much more of her to see.
Jimmy Sangster’s script was rewritten by Alun Owen (his first feature); Losey wanted a social critique and Owen’s TV work suggested, accurately, that he could deliver. Although the prison scenes are fairly clichéd, Patrick Magee’s sadistic warder and the disinterested warden, at the time – in British cinema at least – such a portrayal of dysfunctional prison life was unusual. In fact the representation of prison life does go beyond generic convention: Magee, like Baker, suggests there’s more beneath the surface and it wouldn’t be pretty if it broke out. He’s clearly unhinged but just about holds it together. Kenneth J Warren’s Clobber, a ‘useful idiot’, scarily shows how simple it is to manipulate someone whose IQ is on the low side.
The Criminal wasn’t a box office hit as it had the bad luck to be released at the same time as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, a zeitgeist film if ever there was one. It also struggled to gain critical attention as the snobbery of British film criticism regarded crime thrillers as ‘cheap’ American imitations, especially when placed against New Wave films such as Saturday Night. However the French saw its quality, via Losey as an auteur, and they were right.