The Criminal stars Welsh actor Stanley Baker as Irish convict Johnny Bannion. At the beginning of the film, Bannion ranks high in the stratified prison culture, deferred to by his fellow inmates and seemingly a middleman for crime boss Frank Saffrion (Grégoire Aslan). The opening of the film establishes him with stable footing in a wayward societal microcosm before releasing him to the real world, where a cohort of scheming, business-minded thieves awaits him. They collaborate on a racetrack heist that will yield the group a significant payload. But Bannion is overconfident. He spends his share recklessly, which gets him sent back to prison, where the social structure has gone under a transformation and his status comes into question.
Celebrated director Joseph Losey directed this feature with admirable skill, working with Robert Krasker, cinematographer of Carol Reed’s film noir masterpiece, The Third Man, to create striking black-and-white imagery. The story, unfortunately, leans towards the clinical side, lacking a sufficient amount of essential noir ingredients such as paranoia, dread, and moody sexual angst. Losey demanded significant rewrites to the original script, which contained a greater focus on Bannion’s romance with the coquettish Suzanne (Margit Saad) and a longer treatment of the racetrack heist scene. While Losey’s understandable distaste for old, American prison-film clichés proves a legitimate reason for these changes, his excisions leave the story loveless, humorless, and occasionally dull.
Bannion’s return to prison hinges on a newfound romance with Suzanne, for whom he attracts the attention of the law by purchasing her an engagement ring with proceeds from the racetrack heist. However, the whittling down of their romance saps these actions of necessary motivation. If Bannion and Suzanne’s love is never adequately illustrated, how could a tendency towards such lavish spending appear credible for the otherwise cool and level-headed Bannion? The heist also gets downplayed for the sake of originality (Quentin Tarantino would take the same route to great effect with the unseen diamond heist of Reservoir Dogs). Surely Losey meant to avoid a retread of popular heist crime-capers like The Killing and Rififi, but he replaces this part of the story with practically nothing. This sketchy, threadbare plotting robs the story of suspense and forfeits a prime opportunity to elaborate on the dynamic between Bannion and his men, something that would have made their ultimate betrayal of him that much more effective.
Where the film does succeed, storywise, is in the bookend prison segments. In the first, the arrival of former inmate Kelly (Kenneth Cope) stirs up the prison population, who anticipate harsh consequences for an alluded-to former transgression. Here, we’re introduced to the colorful lineup of supporting characters, namely the contemplative Formsby (John van Eyssen) and the furtive, morally ambiguous prison guard, Barrows (Patrick Magee), and how they function in the reputation-fueled prison culture. These and other characters assemble to present a compelling depiction of British prison life that came off as so harsh, in its time, that the film was banned in some countries, such as Finland.
Although underwhelming in many aspects, Krasker’s excellent compositions render the film a piece of photographic art every bit worth looking into. For its sociological significance, The Criminal will also appeal to those interested in the study of cultural institutions. If British cinema is at all your thing, you can’t go wrong with the films of Joseph Losey. | Nic Champion
This release contains a commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.