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Dark tales from the criminal underworld

Main image of Gangsters

In Britain, as in most other countries, crime was a popular subject for films from the very start. But 'gangster films', as such, scarcely figure in British cinema until the 1940s. There were two main reasons for this. One was a feeling that 'gangsters' were something essentially American. They had gangsters; we had crooks. The other was the restrictive attitude of the British Board of Film Censors, who for years refused to countenance anything approaching a realistic depiction of homegrown criminal activities. In 1933, faced with a proposal to adapt a play, The Blue Café, dealing with organised crime in Soho, the BBFC responded, "The whole story centres around the dope traffic. The language and morals are impossible. Under no circumstances could we pass a film based on this play."

So for their first few decades, British crime movies tended to feature solo criminals, often murderers, as in Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) and Young and Innocent (1937) or Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). Also popular were Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie-style detection stories, and melodramatic mastermind fantasies adapted from the likes of Edgar Wallace or 'Sapper' (creator of Bulldog Drummond).

The loosening of censorship restrictions, and the social upheaval consequent on the Second World War, finally allowed British gangsters on to our screens. (American gangsters, of course, had been there for some time; for some reason they never seemed to alarm the BBFC so much.) Brighton Rock (1947), adapted from Graham Greene's novel, with Richard Attenborough as teenage gang leader Pinkie, was one of the most notable of the postwar wave. Others included the grim They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), starring Trevor Howard as the embittered ex-serviceman who drifts into crime; Good-Time Girl (1948), dramatising the links between organised crime and prostitution; Noose (1948), which featured the Maltese gangs then dominating Soho; and Hollywood blacklistee Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950), a rare example of full-blown British film noir with an intense lead performance from Richard Widmark.

By 1951 the concept of a British gangster movie had become familiar enough for Ealing to spoof it in The Lavender Hill Mob, with Alec Guinness as the mild-mannered bank clerk heading a bunch of innocuous villains. Four years later Guinness led another, rather more dangerous gang in the last of the great Ealing comedies, the gothic extravaganza The Ladykillers (1955).

Serious gangster movies of any quality, though, were in short supply in the 50s, with only the heist thriller The Good Die Young (1954) a marginal contender - though the Shakespeare-in-gangland saga Joe Macbeth (1955) rates a mention for sheer oddity. Otherwise, gangster films were mostly confined to cut-price supporting features with slapdash scripting, usually destined for the lower half of double bills. Not until the very end of the decade did the bleak Hell Is a City (1959) herald a move towards realist-tinged underworld subjects.

The League of Gentlemen (1960) can't strictly be classified as realist, though it offered a new twist on the 'disgruntled ex-servicemen turning to crime' theme of They Made Me a Fugitive. Joseph Losey's The Criminal (1960), stark and uncompromising, with Stanley Baker glowering in the lead, offered more of a pointer to the prevailing mood of the decade. Losey's film is the best-known of a spate of tough, dark-hued gangster film released around this time: Too Hot To Handle (1960), set in the Soho vice-racket; Offbeat (1961), where an MI5 agent infiltrates a gang and finds the criminal life suits him; Payroll (1961), set in Newcastle with a nod to Dassin's Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes, France/W. Germany, 1955); The Frightened City (1961), where Herbert Lom tries to weld all London's protection-racket gangs into a syndicate; and The Small World of Sammy Lee (1961), with Anthony Newley desperately trying to raise the money he owes the Soho mob.

By way of counterbalance, a parallel cycle of sub-Ealingesque gangster comedies was kicked off by Too Many Crooks (1959). Others in a similar vein followed, often starring Peter Sellers: Two Way Stretch (1960); The Wrong Arm of the Law (1962); Crooks in Cloisters (1963). Perhaps worried about being pegged as a comic actor, Sellers also played an exceptionally vicious gang-boss in Never Let Go (1960).

Anything Sellers did onscreen, though, paled beside the real-life activities of such notorious London gangs as the Krays and the Richardsons, and later in the 60s echoes of real-life crimes were starting to show up in fictionalised form on the big screen. Robbery (1967), a dramatised account of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, was directed by Peter Yates, earning him an invitation to Hollywood to direct Bullitt. The Strange Affair (1968) mixed elements of the Richardsons' sadistic practices with the theme of police corruption, while Villain (1971) starred Richard Burton as a gay gang-leader with more than a hint of Ronnie Kray about him. Kray-style gangsters featured in the early scenes of the audaciously imaginative Performance (1968, but only released in 1970). Not until 1990 were the brothers themselves directly depicted, in The Krays.

Biker gangs are another phenomenon seen as chiefly American, but a few home-grown examples have reached British screens. Losey's The Damned (1963) introduced delinquent bikers into an apocalyptic SF story set in, of all places, Weymouth, while the ton-up gangs in The Leather Boys (1963) rather more realistically frequented North Circular cafes. Tongue-in-cheek horror movie Psychomania (1972) had a Hell's Angels leader return as one of the undead, and Quadrophenia (1979) recreated the clashes between mods and rockers in early 60s Brighton.

The Italian Job (1969) played its Turin bullion robbery for comedy, with Michael Caine directing operations on the ground ("You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!") and Noël Coward as a gloriously improbable jailed mastermind. Caine featured in far darker mode in Mike Hodges' brutal revenge drama, Get Carter (1971), and as an icily controlling underworld boss in Mona Lisa (1986), with Bob Hoskins as his troubled subordinate suffering divided loyalties. Hoskins himself had already played a gang leader in the Thatcher-era parable The Long Good Friday (1980), an old-fashioned East End villain hopelessly outclassed by the IRA. Political analogies again weren't far to seek in Mike Figgis's feature debut, Stormy Monday (1988), in which a rich American villain tries to muscle his way into the Newcastle underworld.

Female directors are a rarity in the testosterone-fuelled world of gangster movies, but Antonia Bird brought subtlety - and a subtext of left-wing disillusionment - to the 'one last job' plot of Face (1997). But otherwise, British gangster movies of the last fifteen years or so have been dominated by the boys'-own cycle of mockney capers kickstarted by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Others in similar vein included Ritchie's own Snatch (2000), RocknRolla (2007) and the near-incoherent Revolver (2005); Gangster No 1 (2000); Rancid Aluminium (2000); and Love, Honour and Obey (2000).

Less flip and jokey were Sexy Beast (2000) featuring a performance of riveting malevolence from Ben Kingsley; Layer Cake (2004), the directorial debut of Ritchie's producer Matthew Vaughn, another variant on the 'one last job' theme, with Daniel Craig as the gangster looking to get out; and a return (to rather less effect) by Mike Hodges to Get Carter themes with the revenge drama I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003). An oddball excursion into rural gangsterdom came in Dad Savage (1998), with Patrick Stewart as an East Anglian tulip farmer and part-time gang-boss.

Recent publicity surrounding urban youth crime and black-on-black violence has been reflected in a number of films, including Bullet Boy (2004), with Ashley Walters (of gangsta rap-inspired collective So Solid Crew) as the young ex-prisoner trying to go straight. A young mixed-race gang featured in Kidulthood (2006) and its sequel, Adulthood (2008). A promising new departure - though picking up elements of Mona Lisa - came with London to Brighton (2006), with a hooker and an underage girl on the run from repellent gangland types.

With the mockney-romp cycle seemingly dead, the British gangster film seems well placed to explore fresh territory.

Philip Kemp

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Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Bugsy Malone (1976)Bugsy Malone (1976)

Alan Parker's delightfully original children's gangster musical

Thumbnail image of Bullet Boy (2004)Bullet Boy (2004)

Gritty urban tragedy about two black brothers in north-east London

Thumbnail image of Criminal, The (1960)Criminal, The (1960)

Joseph Losey's fascinating portrait of a changing criminal underworld

Thumbnail image of Crooks in Cloisters (1964)Crooks in Cloisters (1964)

Light-hearted comedy in which a gang of thieves pose as monks

Thumbnail image of Cul-de-Sac (1966)Cul-de-Sac (1966)

Roman Polanski's black comedy about a couple terrorised by gangsters

Thumbnail image of Damned, The (1963)Damned, The (1963)

Joseph Losey's chiller about the after-effects of radiation

Thumbnail image of Face (1997)Face (1997)

Robert Carlyle stars in a gritty east London thriller with political overtones

Thumbnail image of Gangway (1937)Gangway (1937)

Jessie Matthews musical about a reporter involved with a gang of crooks

Thumbnail image of Good Die Young, The (1954)Good Die Young, The (1954)

Cynical heist thriller that was unusually bleak for the cosy mid-50s

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

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Spanish-set thriller about a supergrass 'escorted' home to face the music

Thumbnail image of Ladykillers, The (1955)Ladykillers, The (1955)

A gang of ruthless criminals meet their match in the elderly Mrs Wilberforce

Thumbnail image of Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

A group of eccentric Londoners plot the perfect crime

Thumbnail image of Long Good Friday, The (1979)Long Good Friday, The (1979)

Bob Hoskins dazzles in the defining gangster film of the turn of the '80s

Thumbnail image of Mona Lisa (1986)Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan's unlikely romance set in a vicious world of pimps and prostitutes

Thumbnail image of Noose (1948)Noose (1948)

Stylish 'B' thriller in which a fashion journalist takes on a Soho gangster

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Dazzling psychological drama about a gangster and a rock star

Thumbnail image of Sexy Beast (2000)Sexy Beast (2000)

Unusually inventive addition to the late 1990s gangster cycle

Thumbnail image of Soursweet (1988)Soursweet (1988)

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Thumbnail image of Villain (1971)Villain (1971)

Underrated gangster drama starring Richard Burton

Thumbnail image of Wrong Arm of The Law, The (1962)Wrong Arm of The Law, The (1962)

Imaginative crime comedy with Peter Sellers in his last wholly British film

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