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Put the Boot In: Villain on Blu-ray

  Richard Burton was one of the most famous film stars in the world by 1971, and perhaps that was a problem for those who refused to take him seriously: he had more or less given up the stage, where he had performed Shakespeare to an extremely high level of achievement, to cash huge million dollar cheques and lead movies that may have been popular, but were not critically acclaimed. Nobody in their right mind was going to say Where Eagles Dare was a work of art comparable to Burton's turn treading the boards as Hamlet, no matter how many audiences had a lot more fun watching him and Clint Eastwood gun down hundreds of Nazis in the former, and that snobbery was a big part of why Burton's reputation suffered the further his career went on.

Not to mention becoming a tabloid fixture thanks to leaving his wife for fellow film star Elizabeth Taylor who he met in the infamous farce of a production that was Cleopatra in the early sixties, which was not regarded as the right thing to do and a further bastardisation of the man who was once hailed as the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier, who would never dream of such a thing, or so we supposed. Then in '71 he agreed to take the title gangster role in Villain, and that was the final straw for the cognoscenti, though in effect it was not a popular choice with the public either, thanks to a predilection the character he was playing had: this ne'erdowell was based on a combination of the Kray Twins, and included Ronnie's homosexuality as part of that personality.

Male homosexuality had recently been decriminalised, and the culture in Britain was struggling to decide how to cope with portraying it, most often opting to make it a joke. But there was sadly a portion of the audience who still believed it to be a dangerous aberration and were not keen on seeing movies that featured it in the leads, so no matter that Burton's Vic Dakin character was not a well-balanced man by any means, and unsympathetic to say the least, attending a film with such a subject so out in front was beyond the pale for the audiences who showed up to see the contemporary Get Carter. They couldn't believe Michael Caine as a gay character, so they certainly were not going to be swayed by the man who married one of the most beautiful women ever.

The fact remained, Burton came across as resolutely heterosexual in Villain, which was why the film remained unclaimed by the so-called "queer cinema" movement: you just didn't buy it. Yet it did become a cult item, not thanks to its transgressive qualities, more as a precursor to the sort of violent gangster movie that began to proliferate in British cinema and many years down the line as post-pub, straight to DVD (later streaming) entertainment where guns and geezers, blags and slags would be staples. Helping that status was its regular broadcasts on late night television throughout the eighties and nineties, when the seventies took on a new cultural significance with nostalgia, albeit one that would be bulldozed out of the twenty-first century by a love of the eighties.

There was little glitzy about Villain, and any glamour it possessed was of a seedy, about to be tarnished appearance. Take the almost-central couple of Ian McShane and Fiona Lewis: he is Wolfe, Dakin's boyfriend, while she is Venetia, Wolfe's girl, yet he has no qualms about leaving her at a swanky country house do to be pimped out to dodgy MP Donald Sinden, and she relents with world-weary acceptance and a cynical quip or two. In the Swinging Sixties, this pair would have been a golden couple, going out and having fun, enjoying the new freedoms, yet now in the seventies these have soured into pessimism and corruption, in a bizarre way as if these were expected and even courted as the ultimate consequences of the Pill and its resulting sexual liberation.

Meanwhile, Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland were the coppers on the case, determined to pin a crime on Vic to take him out of action entirely. He sees himself as invincible in that regard, to the point of rank stupidity, placing himself at the heart of a wages raid on a new factory instead of delegating, all to set an example to those he wishes to cower before him. This robbery goes so badly it would be comical if it wasn't so brutal, which sums up the tone; there were laughs in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's script, but only of the snide variety, and pretty much everyone here was horrible in some degree or another. If this was Britain in the seventies, we were all in the sinking ship together, with our choice of pink meat or yellow cheese sandwiches and resigned degradation.

Villain is often mentioned in terms of underrated British gangster movies, despite that TV-spawned fanbase, so Studio Canal's Blu-ray is a welcome release for collectors and newcomers alike. The gem of the extras on the disc is a fifteen-minute interview with Ian McShane about the making of the film; he is full of praise for Burton, and reminisces about their pre-shoot breakfasts together where he would have kippers and Burton would down a vodka and grapefruit juice - then McShane would have one too (!). He also points out he hasn't touched alcohol in decades, probably just as well. Matthew Sweet provides good value with his more critical appraisal of the piece, linking it to its influences and placing it in historical context, while the lurid trailer (amusingly narrated by Joss Ackland, also a supporting player in this) and an image gallery round out the package. Is Villain worth a reappraisal? On this evidence, it has a lot to offer.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018