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Heist Season: Losey Gets Hard Boiled in Somber Neo Noir “The Criminal” | Blu-ray Review

Sporting one of cinema’s most varied filmographies, American born Joseph Losey is one of the few blacklisted success stories of McCarthy’s witch hunt in the 1950s, who rose to significant international acclaim after fleeing to the UK. It wasn’t exactly a smooth transition, wherein Losey directed several titles under a pseudonym for the protection of actors who were afraid to be punished for starring in a Losey production. But by the end of the 1950s, Losey began to hone a more pronounced style across a variety of genres.

Like many auteurs, Losey had a flair for tinkering with gutting the mechanics of expected formulas, and such is the case with his 1961 crime thriller The Criminal (which was released in the US as The Concrete Jungle, likely as a way to capitalize on the critical success of John Huston’s classic The Asphalt Jungle a decade earlier), which seems to be less interested in its narrative than the sociological implications of its protagonist in this particular milieu.

Penned by Oscar nominated scribe Alun Owen (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964), The Criminal stars Stanley Baker as Johnny Bannion, an underworld kingpin who currently lords over his cellblock. His best friend Mike (Sam Wannamaker) manages to get Bannion out of prison, who immediately orchestrates a racetrack heist, burying the loot in a remote field. Betrayed by his cohorts, Bannion returns to prison, but his accomplices want to know where the dough went. Meanwhile his old ‘friends’ and acquaintances he left behind aren’t interested in Bannion returning to his vaunted position in their hierarchy. While his newfound love interest (Margit Saad) is threatened in exchange for information on the money he stole, Bannion is forced to make some tough compromises.

Utilizing actor Stanley Baker, who had starred in Losey’s Blind Date in 1959 and would also appear in Eva (1962) and Accident (1967), the trajectory of Johnny Bannion is a familiar genre trope, suggesting the purposeful vagueness of Losey’s title explains the startling ambivalence towards him. In the end, Bannion, a one-time hot shot of his cell block, becomes an invisible statistic, both in his world and ours.

Losey does a fine job of paralleling the rigid hierarchy within the prison aside the equally limited freedom of the outside world, a place Bannion is no longer adept at navigating. His compulsions, which include a weakness for beautiful women, become part of his fated undoing. Of this period, The Criminal can’t hold a narrative candle to the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), a film which goes into great detail staging its famous racetrack heist, or even Peter Yates’ underrated debut Robbery (1967), a film in which Baker also stars. And yet it’s final, lonely climax amidst a frozen field hiding a large sum of cash echoes alongside the potency of both Truffaut and the Coen Bros. as a cold-hearted portrait of the consequences reaped from hot-blooded follies.

Fellow black-listed American Sam Wanamaker plays Baker’s best friend, but it’s Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, 1971) as the uptight prison warden who makes more of an impression, while the women in Bannion’s life (Jill Bennett, Margit Saad) really don’t register as more than (to use Losey-speak) figures in a landscape.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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