One day away, that's all John Bannion (Stanley Baker) is from freedom. He is incarcerated in a British jail on a sentence for robbery, and he is not in there as a miscarriage of justice, he really committed the crime, for crime is his career and prison is an occupational hazard. Another one is violence, and today he risks extending his sentence when another inmate arrives, one who has wronged Bannion in the past and looks set to suffer his vengeance, if not at his hands then at Bannion's cohorts. The word gets around quickly, "Kelly’s back!", and the man in question (Kenneth Cope) cowers in anticipation of a severe beating, no matter that the prison officer in charge, Barrows (Patrick Magee) expressly forbids it.
And Barrows is as mean as Bannion in what looks in its early stages to be a purely prison-set drama, though as it turns out Kelly does not receive his beating and our anti-hero walks free the next day - directly into another robbery which he is keyed up to amass a small fortune from. Of course, he is supposed to be amassing that cash for the gangsters he is operating for, but he has other ideas, establishing him as a rebel who does not wish to stick with either side of the law when he can support himself independently. Though, naturally, simply because he was rejecting organised crime did not mean Bannion was going to stick to the straight and narrow, the film's title was enough indication of that.
Stanley Baker was made for such roles, and director Joseph Losey, now making a name for himself in British movies after struggling with the Blacklist in Hollywood and some subpar material when he crossed the Atlantic to escape it, was the man he needed to prove that behind that rough exterior beat the heart of a serious actor who could ably handle dramatically forceful stories and convey an inner life to go with that outer action. It was from his essentially he-man roles that Baker built his following, though he was actually capable of some sensitivity when given the chance, yet looked so physically intimidating that he was rarely asked to play such parts.
He was assuredly intimidating here, in what was regarded as one of the toughest movies to emerge from Britain since Brighton Rock, with its violence comparatively graphic for its day (though naturally that was surpassed tenfold in what was to follow). Even though The Criminal has not aged into its place among the most important of gangster movies from its country, especially when the form was bastardised into countless low budget and high action efforts that were largely dismissed except by those wanting cheap, unpretentious entertainment after a Friday night out, Losey proved what a heavy dose of style could do for your work, shooting in stark black and white and choosing his camera angles well, then directing his cast in such a manner that they were not stereotypes but idiosyncratic personalities, even down to the smaller supporting roles.
Alun Owen penned the script, the writer who would be best known for the screenplay of The Beatles A Hard Day's Night a few short years later, but you would search in vain for anything very much approaching a sense of humour here. There may have been rich ironies and a wry demeanour in some scenes, but The Criminal treated its subject with the utmost gravity: these men have chosen a route that has damned them to a thwarted life, the life of a jailbird, and nobody we see looks to have any hope of escaping that once they're caught. If and when they get out, it's no use, they will be back soon enough. And yet, could Bannion break that cycle? When he buries the loot in the countryside at a location only he knows, it could make him very comfortable if he manages to fox both the authorities and the gangsters, he could settle down with new girlfriend Suzanne (German import Margit Saad, best known in English for the Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel), he could set up somewhere else, allow himself to dream... Do you really think he'll get away with that in this harsh world? At least he has some victory by the conclusion in a vividly acted and presented, if a little pat, dramatic thriller that comprised a small revolution in its way. Music by Johnny Dankworth.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.