The villain of the title is Vic Dakin (played by the legend that is Richard Burton). Vic is based on famous gangster Ronnie Kray. Vic is a tough gang leader who still loves his dear old mum (Kathleen Nesbit, who also played Burton’s mother in the film Staircase). Thankfully she is spared the treatment of Vic’s toy-boy lover Wolfe (Ian McShane), who is frequently used as a punchbag.
There’s a good crop of British actors here- as well as Burton and McShane the cast includes Donald Sinden and Nigel Davenport- and everyone seems to be having fun. Villain came out the same year as Get Carter, a film which I found too nasty to be enjoyable. Though there is sadism here, as one might expect from a gangster film, there’s also a touch of comedy- perhaps unsurprising when the screenwriters are Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, famous for writing Porridge and The Likely Lads.
Famously Burton had no qualms about phoning in a performance if he thought the film was bad; whilst this was never going to be up for an Oscar, he gets into the spirit, almost like a perverse playground game. Burton’s Cockney accent is wobbly but he is saved by the dialogue, which is full of the voice of a British gangster. Much of Burton’s charm was in his commanding yet mellifluous accent so it seems a shame to disguise it but thankfully it is released in his menacing final speech.
People will inevitably throw out the criticism that the film is dated; being set before I was born, to me it feels like a great period piece, the quintessential personification of 1970s Britain as I imagine it.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the plot, mainly because there isn’t much of one. It’s your usual gangster activity; Vic’s planning an ambitious raid on the wages van of a plastics factory and using his lover Wolfe to blackmail an MP (played by Donald Sinden) who’s involved in a sex scandal. However, it is atypical in that the gang leader is gay (another aspect based on Ronnie Kray); Burton was probably the least likely actor you’d choose to play a gay character but it was actually his second time playing one (the first being in the abominable Staircase). In Staircase Burton piled on prissy cliché and sends the whole thing up, whereas here it’s just a facet of Vic’s character.
In Richard Burton’s Diaries- a book I highly recommend- Burton, prior to making the film, describes it as a ‘racy sadistic London piece about cops and robbers’. Apart from one memorable scene near the start of the film, this is sadism of the thuggish rather than gory variety, which gives it more of an authentic feel. He suggests that the film ‘could be more than that, depending on the director’- I’m inclined to agree but Michael Tuchner was not the man to add depth.
This was not the great film that would have got anywhere near the Oscars but as someone who is not that interested in the genre, I thought it was great fun. Burton had a good run playing lunatics in the seventies though the quality of the films was mixed. Equus was undoubtedly the highest point but Villain is also strong proof that Burton had the talent, even if he didn't always have the desire.
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