British actors have long been sought after by American filmmakers. They like to cast them as villains, or as upperclass, witless saps. They are often used as Nazis, and have provided the James Bond franchise with some of its more memorable arch-enemies. Maybe it’s the accent, perhaps it’s the old animosity from the 1770s, but most British actors are generally the bad guys. This has worked well, providing an income for many stalwart ex-pats. However, there are some actors who have given us stand-out roles, portraying cruel criminals, or hard-man gangsters. I would like to celebrate some of these, with this tribute to the British Gangster.
When I think of cinema’s hard men, the first one that springs to mind is Lee Marvin as Walker, in Point Blank (1967). His relentless pursuit of those who betrayed him, signified even by the echo of his steps as he walks. The scene where he systematically destroys a new car to gain information from the salesman sitting inside with him is one of my favourite scenes in any film. If asked to name a favourite character in a modern production, I would unhesitatingly suggest Joe Pesci, as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas (1990), a man to whom violence is second nature, and little more than a tool of his job. But this is about British actors, not Americans, and they also have their hard men in abundance.
From Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of Pinkie in Brighton Rock (1947), to Vinnie Jones as Big Chris in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), we have seen a great crop of British bad guys; either in lead roles, or memorable character parts, sometimes stealing the film from the stars. Some of these actors come from backgrounds and places similar to the characters they are playing, others do not. Many have been regrettably typecast as tough guys and hard men. Ray Winstone, Jason Statham, Sean Bean, and Danny Dyer, are all mostly destined to play little else. They are part of a rich tradition here, that of the ‘familiar’ hard man. As soon as he appears, you know what to expect, and they usually do not disappoint. Not all fit this description though, as my first choice will show.
Villain ( 1971)
Richard Burton was a Welsh actor, famous for Shakespearian roles, and for playing opposite his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. He also starred in some historical epics, such as The Robe, and Cleopatra. So he might not be the first person to come to mind for the role of London gangster, Vic Dakin, in this 70s gangster film. This story of a homosexual crime boss, in conflict with other gangs as he plans a daring robbery, was a thinly-disguised attempt to cash in on the notoriety of Ronnie Kray, one of the real-life Kray twins. With his sidekick and love interest provided by Ian McShane, himself often cast as a hard man later on, and a cast of British legends including Donald Sinden, Nigel Davenport, and Colin Welland, this film received a lukewarm reception from critics on release. Decades later, it might seem tame in comparison with what we see today, but it was very popular with the viewing public, who were not put off by the sexual element, which was unusual at the time. This is mainly due to Burton, who gives a surprisingly realistic performance as the heartless Dakin, (except for a variable London accent) who reserves his emotions for his young lover, and his old mother. More than a film about the planned job, this also sneaks in blackmail, vengeful cops, and has something to say about sadism and sexuality. Not bad for a British caper film.
Get Carter (1971)
Released in the same year, but feeling far more contemporary today, this is probably still the best gangster film ever made here in the UK. This film reflected a trend towards a harder edge to TV drama at the time, and an increase in violence and nudity in films that was becoming more acceptable everywhere. Michael Caine is completely convincing as Carter. Hearing of his brother’s death, Carter defies his London bosses, and travels back to his former home in the north-east, determined to discover the truth. He uncovers a web of political corruption, pornography, and sex for favours, and soon finds out what really happened. Set on revenge, he ruthlessly goes about eliminating anyone involved in the death of his brother, and the sexual abuse of his young niece. This film has great locations, and a totally authentic feel. Mix in some of the best character actors of the day, and you have a sure-fire winner, and an instant classic. Despite the unnecessary casting of Britt Eckland as a love interest, and a somewhat unbelievable turn from playwright John Osborne, as the northern crime lord, this is a film that will stay with you for its memorable set pieces and grim conclusion. I was only 19 when I saw this for the first time and now I am retired. Yet I could watch it again tomorrow, and probably will now.
Ray Winstone is one of those actors who, like Michael Caine, came from a tough area and a working-class background. As a young man he loved to box and was very successful in amateur fights. He always loved films though and was determined to become an actor, eventually enrolling in stage school in London. One of his earliest roles was as a young thug, in an episode of the TV series The Sweeney. It says much for his persistence that he later starred as Jack Regan in the 2012 film adaptation of that series. He has had a successful and lucrative career playing the hard man. In everything from Face (1997) through to King Arthur (2004), The Departed (2006) and beyond, his toughness and rough appearance has guaranteed he will be cast in the hardest roles.
He first became well-known to audiences playing Carlin, the young man ruling the roost in the young offenders’ institute in the film of Alan Clarke’s play Scum. Considered too violent and controversial to be shown on television, it was remade into the film that made Winstone a household name in the UK. We see him rise to power through violence, rape, and intimidation, determined to become ‘The Daddy’, the top dog in the detention centre. The guards turn a blind eye, content to let the inmates control themselves and make their own job easier. Winstone is always compelling on screen, and hard to separate from the real people who inspire such stories. It is still difficult to watch, all these years later, and considered by many to be a decisive moment, when certain types of violence and assault were allowed to be seen without censorship. It is also rightly hailed as a telling criticism of the juvenile prison system at the time, and very much a landmark film in British cinema.
The Limey (1999)
This is an American film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, and featuring Peter Fonda, Barry Newman, and Luis Guzman, all excellent in various roles. But it’s the British hard man referred to in the title who steals the show. Terence Stamp is a London-born actor who had a variety of jobs before deciding to take to the stage, and train at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Stage and screen roles followed, and his good looks secured him a following that was soon enhanced by appreciation of his acting talents too. He won a Best Actor award at Cannes, for The Collector (1962), and was highly praised for his role in Far From The Madding Crowd in 1967. However, his first real bad guy role, as the villainous General Zod, in Superman (1978) sent his career down a different, and more commercial path.
In The Limey, he reprises the theme seen in Get Carter. Recently released from prison in England, he travels to the west coast of America in an effort to find out the circumstances behind the death of his estranged daughter. He uncovers a corrupt web of drug dealing within the music industry, and with the help of his daughter’s friend (Guzman) sets out to take revenge on the lofty producer, played by Peter Fonda. Stamp plays the part of Wilson with a quiet menace, a man who seems to have little regard for his own safety, in order to seek vengeance. The Americans he encounters all make the mistake of underestimating him, to their cost. The story involves the DEA, drug-dealing inside the various media industries, and is something of an indictment of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in America at the time. But all of that is really by-the-by. Stamp delivers a wonderful performance as someone stricken with grief and haunted by the past, yet still unable to say goodbye to the hard man inside.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Sir Ben Kingsley (real name Krishna Pandit Bhanji) has had a very distinguished acting career. Much of his early work was with The Royal Shakespeare Company, and The National Theatre, where he gained great respect as an actor before the change to working in film and television in the mid 1970s. His moment came when he starred as Gandhi in the 1982 film of the same name. He won the Best Actor Oscar for that role, and became famous the world over. For me, his finest performance was in a completely different role, and in a genre that he was not known for at all, at least until then.
Sexy Beast is a British-Spanish co-production, made for the low budget of £4 million, and filmed in Spain and England. The star is Ray Winstone, playing retired criminal and former hard man Gary Dove, and Ian McShane features again, as Teddy Bass, a London crime boss. Dove has had a lucrative criminal career and has decided to retire to Spain, where the relaxed extradition laws, and equally relaxed police, enable him to live a comfortable life in the sun. Unfortunately for Gary, his peace and quiet is about to be disturbed. His legendary safe-cracking talents are required for a big job in England, organised by Bass. Teddy sends Don Logan (Kingsley) to Spain, to tell Gary that he must participate in the raid, or face the consequences.
A soon as Logan arrives at the villa, everything changes. Kingsley as Logan is absolutely horrible. Swearing, abusive, aggressive, and offensive. And he is terrifying too. He really is. He plays the role with such power and venom, that most viewers would consider themselves lucky not to ever encounter his like. In a short space of time, you are soon aware that something very bad is going to happen. And it does.
I have heard criticism of Kingsley’s performance. Some say that it is hysterical, unbelievable, or over the top. They are wrong. As someone brought up in a hard place in the south of London, I have been close to people like this in my teens. I know how the other characters feel around Logan; that sense of dread, of being unable to reason with someone who has no conscience, no fear, and is capable of anything. Kingsley gets it dead right. It is an amazing performance in every way possible. If you thought that this was a run of the mill gangster film with nothing to offer, think again. It is worth it for Kingsley alone. The others are pretty good too.
The same year, and a very different British (or should that be International?) crime caper, directed by Guy Ritchie. Brad Pitt as an Irish Traveller and bare knuckle fighter, Jason Statham as ‘Turkish,’ (though he isn’t) a chancer, illegal gambler and boxing promoter. Everyone has a nick-name, including Benicio Del Toro as Frankie Four Fingers, the American connection. It is a film that you are meant to enjoy, to laugh along with, and to be drawn into its convoluted, and increasingly unlikely plot. It is a fun film, with violence. Lots of violence. It has Gipsy caravans, dogs, diamonds, Russian mobsters, guns of all kinds, and even a rocket launcher. They threw everything possible into this film, from Pitt’s mangled Irish accent, to every small-time crook stereotype imaginable. And it works, and works well. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like it (at least UK viewers that is), and it is undeniably enjoyable. Fast-paced, plot twists galore, and a good resolution.
It also has ‘Brick Top.’ This character, played by the wonderful English actor Alan Ford, is a real hard man of the old school. Gang boss, money man, and gambler. He does not suffer fools easily, and would not hesitate to throw someone into his dog-fighting pit. He is in charge and has the muscle to back it up. Despite wearing large spectacles, and having the sandy red hair that gives him his name, he is not someone to be messed with, and that menace is apparent whenever he’s on screen. It might only be a small part in a film with an ensemble cast. It’s a memorable one though, and a tribute to his experience playing many similar roles.
English actor Tom Hardy seems to be in almost everything at the moment. Former model and drama student Hardy first became known to audiences in the TV series Band of Brothers, then made his first film appearance in Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down (2001). He hasn’t been off cinema or TV screens much since – and with good reason! He is a talented actor, who can turn his hand to a variety of roles. In addition to his many film appearances, he is a regular on many BBC TV series here in the UK, notably Peaky Blinders, and The Virgin Queen.
In 2008, he took on a role that would get him both respect and fame, in the British film Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. This is an biographical account of the life of a real criminal, still held in a British jail to this day. Michael Gordon Peterson was a small-time thief, who later graduated to armed robbery. He served seven years in prison for that offence, and during this time attacked guards and other prisoners. He also took hostages and became impossible to handle. He was sent to ever more secure prisons, finally ending up in a mental hospital.
Given parole later, he became a bare-knuckle fighter and illegal boxer, adopting the name Charles Bronson after the American tough-guy actor. He only managed to stay out of prison for a few weeks, eventually being caught for another robbery and returned to confinement.
Hardy put on weight for the role, as Bronson is a large man, and had done some body-building. He captures the aggression and sudden violence of the man well. Starting riots, overwhelming large numbers of guards and being brutally beaten; Hardy is at all times totally convincing as a man who has spent most of his life in prison and has nothing to lose. The film seems to be unable to decide if we should be sympathetic to Bronson or just be glad that he is locked up. Yet the performance shows us something of the normal middle-class man that is still inside somewhere, and makes the viewer feel suitably uncomfortable about both him and his treatment in prison. Hardy may not have had the hard-man credentials of others, but he has left us with this riveting portrayal of one of society’s most feared individuals.
There you have some British hard men. They and their films may not have the flash of Casino, or be as epic as Once Upon A Time In America, or The Godfather trilogy. They are nonetheless fine examples of the genre, and provide worthy performances in often difficult roles. For me, it is as much about the cars, the locations, the accents and familiar expressions, some of which might require translation for many outside of the UK. If you haven’t seen any of them, you are missing out. I hope that you discover them, and find something to enjoy.