Cult Movie: The Criminal a mini-masterpiece that deserves a wider audience

Stanley Baker in The Criminal (1960)
Ralph McLean

JOSEPH Losey made some startlingly good films in his time. The Criminal may not be up there with The Servant, Accident or The Go-Between in terms of critical acclaim but it's a low-key masterclass in crime storytelling that is just waiting to find the bigger audience it so clearly deserves.

Released to cinemas in 1960, we're talking about a mean and moody prison drama here, shot stylishly in stark black and white and blessed with a hip British jazz soundtrack from Johnny Dankworth that's so cool it almost hurts.

At its noir-ish heart this is a simple story of one man, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) and his struggle to reclaim the loot he's stashed away from a racetrack heist when he's forced back behind bars.

It's much more than a cheap incarceration caper, however, and while the scenes set within the prison walls are grim and claustrophobic and peopled with all the usual sadistic screws and hardbitten lifers that you'd expect, the sequences Losey filmed outside drift with a gorgeous artfulness that sees the film come gloriously close to the very best that the so-called French New Wave had to offer at the time.

Sharply edited, genuinely aggressive and boasting a typically no-nonsense central performance from that Welsh powerhouse Stanley Baker, its lack of critical standing is frankly bizarre.

From Helldrivers to Zulu, Baker elevated every film he graced in this period with his magnetic screen presence and moody demeanour.

Great as Baker is, though, this is a Losey film through and through, and the director messes around with our preconceptions of what a film like this should be about with typical playfulness.

It may feel like this is heist movie but in reality Losey dispenses with that event swiftly and off camera. Most of the time this is a superior prison drama and it does a splendid job of getting deep within the mindset of a habitual reoffender.

Bannion is a plotter, a thinker, a thug and a gambler. Rarely has a crime movie drawn as complicated a character as is offered here. He's evil but attractive, always a dangerous combination.

After a stunning first half hour the plot does lose it way a tad as Losey tries to explore just who is in on the crime and who isn't but this remains a superb evocation of the British underworld of the era in all its complex glory.

Sometimes better known by its American title of Concrete Jungle, this is an edgy, uncompromising study of the criminal mindset that proved so controversial it wound up banned in several European countries at the time.

Perhaps that deep and dangerous performance from Mr Baker rang just a little too true, and perhaps just a little too attractive, for the powers that be to allow it a full release? Maybe the lack of humour to lighten the load made it too grim for mass consumption.

Either way The Criminal is little short of mini-masterpiece that deserves an immediate retrial.

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