“You know if I looked at one of them they’d piss in their pants,” scowls Richard Burton’s Vic Dakin, a vicious East End hoodlum not loosely inspired by Ronnie Kray.
It’s the final scene of Michael Tuchner’s Villain and Dakin, tracked down to an industrial wasteland, is cornered, armed and facing years in the can. The public peer on from high-rise balconies. “And who are you?” he asks of Inspector Bob Matthews. “Keeping Britain clean on 30 quid a week… Respect? You don’t what it is.”
Released in 1971, Villain has all the hallmarks of the Kray era: sharp suits, family values and a currency of fear and violence. It’s an early instalment in a sprawling canon of films set in and around East London, depicting a brutal and complicated landscape steaming with vice.
Crime and culture are two strands of London life that have been twisting together and playing off one another for decades. Tuchner’s distinctive thriller came smack in the middle of a golden era for the British gangster flick. Not two years earlier, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’sexperimental masterclass Performance (1970) found its way onscreen, having been denied initial release in 1968 on the grounds of lewd content.
Performance sees a notorious East End heavy uprooted to a Notting Hill basement, hiding out with a reclusive bohemian landlord, played by Mick Jagger, and his two European girlfriends. In stark contrast to his role as a tastefully-clad mob enforcer, James Fox’s Chas embarks on a journey of subconscious self-discovery. Panned at the time, this clever and aesthetically pioneering piece is bold and relevant, well-deserving of the cult following it has procured over the years. (The relationship between gangster, performance and celebrity is a thread not lost on more contemporary directors.)
A decade later, John MacKenzie’s menacing portrait of a Docklands on the cusp of economic revolution immortalised Bob Hoskins and his barrel-chested ruffian Harold Shand. Not burdened by nostalgia, The Long Good Friday (1980), like Villain, rides high on its plausibility.
MacKenzie’s film came from an extraordinary script by Barry Keeffe, a screenwriter who started work as a journalist. Capturing the onset of Thatcherism and a moment of high ambition, renovation and corruption, Keeffe eerily predicted an era in which the Docklands were revised and rebuilt. Violence is surprisingly sparse but extreme – honest and unglamorous. Few British films are of equal merit.
Ten years on from MacKenzie’s pared-down milestone, Gary and Marin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet, took on the challenge of playing the East End’s most formidable criminal partnership: Ronnie and Reggie. The Krays (1990) explores the psychology of a post-war underworld where community spirit, manners and immaculate presentation are the order of the day. The violence is savage and in blunt contrast to the domestic setting of much of the film, where nostalgia runs almost to a fault.
Although a poignant portrait of tabloid gangsterism, in which the whole of East London’s a stage for the twins to tread, Peter Medak’s drama is perhaps guilty of presenting a rose-tinted view of organised crime in Bethnal Green and the surrounding area. However, its lasting influence can be found in Nicolas Winding Refn’s pulsating biopic Bronson (2008), the tale of Britain’s most famous prisoner.
A pathological performer, Charles Bronson – played with bruising vigour by Tom Hardy – narrates his story beneath a theatre spotlight, where he parades back and forth dressed in clown attire. The cartoonish villain, who was once embroiled in East London’s bare-knuckle boxing scene, tore his way into the hearts of the press via a run of severe misbehaviour on the inside.
He recently made the headlines for selling a collection of his and Ronnie Kray’s artworks to fund a holiday for his mother, who was upset by his involvement in a twelve-man prison brawl. The film takes that link between celebrity, crime and performance to a new and intriguing level.
Turn of the century
Villain and The Long Good Friday – for me, the most successful examples of the genre –share something of a realist approach, resisting glorification. Over the years, directors, particularly of the post-Tarantino age, have increasingly hoicked style up over substance.
Take the likes of Snatch (2000) and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), two punchy capers set in a mythical East End terrain populated by clichés and caricatures. These mildly entertaining Guy Ritchie features represent a kind of hyper-real gangster movie that fails to resonate with modern-day East London; the Krays’ cultural legacy having cut the landscape with a rough narrative sketch that filmmakers continue to adopt, regardless of its fading connection to real life.
Then there’s Antonia Bird’s Face (1997), in which Robert Carlyle’s Ray, a former-commie activist, forges a career in armed robbery. Ray claims not to like crime films: “They never show criminals in a good light,” he says. Offering a strained analysis of the criminal conscience, coupled with a dose of post-Thatcher oppression by way of explanation, Face has moments of promise but ultimately fails. A ridiculously inflated final shootout in a police station does nothing for its credibility.
Gangster No. 1 (2000), Paul McGuigan’s memorably sinister and humourless answer to Once Upon a Time in America, came along just in time to rescue the genre from the horror show that was Love, Honour and Obey, released the same year. But perhaps the most successful of modern crime films with a touch of the East End about them are those that have taken the material to new horizons. Consider Jonathan Glazer’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece Sexy Beast, a classy thriller that doesn’t try to locate itself on the streets, nor in the consciousness, of a specific place. In Bruges (2008), ironically, can be looked at in a similar light.
Seeking to take the violence that audiences crave in new directions – remember the spate of football-hooligan films that peaked with 2005’s disastrous Green Street – the canon has fragmented. East London films are now exploring new personalities. Wild Bill (2011) and Borrowed Time (2012) both portray hapless-but-hearty central characters in too deep for their own good – the former to great effect and the latter not so. 2007’s excellent Eastern Promises completely shuns the traditional Cockney crook in favour of the murky subculture of the Russian mafia.
The future of the East End gangster flick
This June saw the world premiere of Hackney’s Finest, which follows a pair of everyday drug dealers as they clash with Russian thugs, Welsh-Jamaican rude boys and a pair of thoroughly nasty coppers. It’s brave, bizarre, and very controversial, with decidedly little in common with anything that’s come before it.
Since MacKenzie and Tuchner’s day, traces of their classic works have been repackaged and proliferated in various forms, but the gap between the material and the moment has grown ever wider – expanding in conjunction with rising house prices and a shifting local identity. As far as the relationship between film and East End crime as we’ve come to know it goes, perhaps the moment has passed.
With Tom Hardy set to play both Kray twins in a feature likely to be released in 2015, we’ll have to wait and see.