Welcome to the first in a short series on British prison films. There may not be a mountain of great films in this genre, but the best ones are crackers!
THE CRIMINAL (1960)
Known as The Concrete Jungle in the States, Joseph Losey’s film is a hard-edged examination of the rage and resentment of prison life that went well beyond the prevailing cinematic norms of its day and got itself into a bit of trouble with the censors as well as a fair number of critics. Stanley Baker plays Johnny Bannion, an uncompromising hard man who does not gladly suffer fools, or anyone else much, and the film – in gritty, atmospheric black and white, with snappy dialogue and plenty of sharp performances – boils over from time to time into the kind of violent chaos that put it years ahead of its time and must have influenced the likes of Scum many years later.
Stanley Baker, of course, was one of those film stars with gangster connections; he was a habitué of London’s West End and manager, for a time, of Soho United, the villains’ football team. Here we see him flanked by Frankie Fraser and Eddie Richardson .
This one provoked even more outrage and condemnation on its release in 1979 (putting it close in time to the violent negative energy released into British Society by Punk and the football hooligans) than The Criminal did nineteen years before. By the standards of the time it was as raw as could be imagined and still get a release, but since then Alan Clarke’s graphic, hard-boiled classic has come to enjoy iconic status, not only amongst prison film buffs but in British cinema as a whole, with its cult following eventually blossoming into critical acclaim.
A fresh-faced Ray Winstone (who, though he doesn’t know it yet, will one day find himself, by hook or by crook, playing Harry Hawkins in a London Large movie) explodes onto the screen as Carlin, a young thug who rises through the ranks of the prison inmates through a calculated campaign of brutal and unforgiving violence. Clarke creates a portrait of an institution that fails both its employees and inmates in such a way as to make inevitable the climactic eruption of rioting (led by Carlin, by now ‘The Daddy’) and attempt to overthrow the authority of the ‘screws’ through sheer rage and brute force.
Note: Scum isn’t actually set in a prison as such, but a Borstal – an institution for young offenders. It’s well worth comparing this portrayal of Borstal life with the earlier and relatively gentle but no less iconic Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner of 1962, directed by Tony Richardson on the basis of an Alan Sillitoe story.
LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER