As Richard Burton's star power began to decline in the early 1970s, he was chastised for appearing in too many inconsequential films and accused of simply taking any job that came along to help pay for his high-end life style. As with Marlon Brando, many of Burton's films that were initially despised by critics and ignored by the public have gained new appreciation in recent years. One such effort was Villain, a brutal British crime drama produced by Elliott Kastner, directed by the unheralded Michael Tucher and boasting script contributions than none other than character actor Al Lettieri, who made a career of playing gangsters. Clearly inspired by the reign of terror presided over by London's notorious Kray clan, the story finds Burton as Vic Dakin, an outwardly charismatic and charming man who also happens to be one of the city's most notorious crime lords. Vic is no white collar criminal. He still lives among the people he terrorizes and is a mainstay at the local pub. Vic dotes on his aging mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) and keeps his army of confederates in line through the threat of strict punishment for any violation of trust. Vic's ambitions get the better of him when he strays from neighborhood crime and plans an ambitious heist with a reluctant fellow crime lord. The plan goes horribly awry, leading Vic to fear that he will be sold out by his co-conspirator, who is severely wounded and in police custody. He becomes obsessed with gaining access to the man and silencing him before he can talk. Doggedly following his every move is a police inspector (well-played by Nigel Davenport), who engages in a game of psychological cat-and-mouse with Vic in his quest to bring the vicious criminal to justice.
Villain was denounced by British critics and movie fans at the time because of what was perceived as Burton's ill-fated attempt to master a Cockney accent. However, other aspects of his performance are admirable. Burton pretty much controls his penchant for scenery-chewing and offers a fairly restrained portrayal of a sadistic man who is nonetheless slow to reach his boiling point. Vic can be sensitive, funny and ingratiating..but when driven to anger, capable of administering much brutality himself. He also hides the fact that he is gay and his preferred sex partner is Wolfie (excellently played by Ian McShane), a good looking ladies man who one suspects is only bedding Vic out of fear of rejecting his overtures. (A sex scene between Burton and McShane was filmed but ended up on the cutting room floor.) The homosexual angle is only hinted at in the final cut of the film, but Burton had gone a bridge too far in this regard, at least as far as critics were concerned. Two years before, he had played a prissy gay man opposite Rex Harrison (as his lover) in Stanley Donen's Staircase, another fine film that was under-appreciated in its day. Burton's bold career moves would be praised today but met with scorn at the time. His face weather-beaten from years of personal excess, Burton was actually entering an interesting period of his career that saw him able to expand beyond playing hunky heart throbs. Villain affords him an interesting starring vehicle that is now being favorably compared to other classic British crime films such as Get Carter, a movie that was released the same year and also met with a mediocre response until a new generation discovered its merits. Perhaps the same will hold true for this film, which boasts an excellent supporting cast, fine direction and a literate, believable script.
The Warner Archive has released Villain as a burn-to-order DVD. Quality is fine, but sadly there are no extras.
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