Few filmmakers are as single-mindedly obsessed with British crime as Guy Ritchie. (Forgiving, of course, his brief detour with an ego-stroking remake of "Swept Away," starring Ritchie's then-wife Madonna.) With his debut feature, "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) Ritchie combined British crime hallmarks with the snappy style of the wry, post-Quentin Tarantino cinematic landscape. The results were crude (the movie still looks like it was shot through a dirty pub glass) but Ritchie's energy and talent was undeniable. It also established the Ritchie plot blueprint, wherein a bunch of underworld thugs tussle over an object with nearly magical magnetism (in 'Lock, Stock…' it's a pair of antique guns). His second feature (and still probably his best), "Snatch" (2000), was a refined version of "Lock, Stock…" – it looked better, it moved better, and, thanks to the splash his previous film made, it had a big, starry supporting performances from (briefly) Benicio del Toro, Dennis Farina and Brad Pitt, playing an unintelligible gypsy boxer. (The magical item this time around was a fist-sized diamond.) Ritchie was smarter about how he handled violence and what songs he chose for the impeccable soundtrack, and the entire thing feels like the movie Ritchie was trying to make the first time around, but didn't have the skills or money to accomplish. Ritchie combined his love of gangster theatrics with metaphysical underpinnings and an increased interest in Israeli mysticism with "Revolver," a Luc Besson-produced oddity that was so poorly received in England that it was drastically reworked for America. It's honestly pretty daring, artistically, and as entertaining as anything Ritchie has done (there's a great sequence with Ray Liotta getting smashed under a table that ranks amongst his best, most suspenseful set pieces). By the time 2008's "RocknRolla" came around, Ritchie had ditched any of his artistic pretense and plunged right back into his crime-riddled world, to super satisfying results. "RocknRolla" nearly bests "Snatch" in the outright enjoyment department, though "RocknRolla" pauses to comment on the state of modern London -- something that, in the past, wasn't a concern of his. (Maybe his moneyed status has given him perspective.) One of his most boldly stylized movies (which is saying something), "RocknRolla" plays like a big, gangster-filled comic book. It's a blast. Not directly connected to Ritchie, but inexorably linked in the public's eye was "Layer Cake," which marked the directorial debut of his long-time producer Matthew Vaughn. A little sadder and more sophisticated than Ritchie's pictures, with more of a flavor of the 1970s, it has a terrific performance from Daniel Craig that landed him the Bond gig, and remains Vaughn's best film by about a million miles.
For all of the revival of the London-set gangster movie that Ritchie caused, the high watermark still remains John Mackenzie's terrific 1980 film "The Long Good Friday." Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster sitting at the top of the tree, and hoping to move into legitimate territory with a huge property development in the Docklands era of East London, in the hope that it might serve as the site for a future Olympics (ooh, prescient). But he's under attack from an unknown enemy (the IRA, it would seem), causing the U.S. Mafia (led by Eddie Constantine) to pull out of the agreement, leaving Harold desperate to salvage his deal. It's firmly a film that sums up its era -- timed perfectly to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in government, with Harold as the kind of figure who would have flourished under her, and its tie to the real-life redevelopment of the Docklands serves as a neat time capsule for a London in transition. But it's also simply a gripping thriller, with a star-making performance from Hoskins (and Helen Mirren, as his lover), showing both the peaceful, honorable man Shand wants to be, and the psychotic thug that lies underneath. His final scene, as he's confronted by an IRA hitman (Pierce Brosnan, in his first screen role) is something of an acting masterclass.
Neil Jordan's career is fascinating, but arguably a very patchy one. However one early indisputable crown jewel is the unlikely romantic crime drama "Mona Lisa" largely due in part by Bob Hoskins, who in an intriguing flip-side to the role that made his name six years earlier, plays as a good-hearted, but meek underling just getting out of prison. Having covered for his old mob boss (Michael Caine), Hoskins' George is still a flunkie doormat with few options allowing him to go straight , but eventually, is given a cushy job as a chauffeur for a high-class black prostitute (Cathy Tyson). As George becomes friendlier with Simone, affections begin to bloom and George becomes entangled in her life when she pleads with him to track down one of her abused friends from her shady past. Hoskins' range has illustrated that he can playing raging boils or soft-hearted patsys, and in "Mona Lisa," he convincingly plays a low-level stooge with soft devotion in a wonderfully minor key. He’s a man lost in an England he no longer recognizes, and even among a strong cast (Caine, somewhat against type, is a great villain, Tyson should have gone on to better things than she did, and you can spot early appearances from Robbie Coltrane as well as future “The Wire” star Clarke Peters), he dominates; quite rightly, he won Best Actor at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar. Larry Clark was planning a remake a few years ago with Mickey Rourke and Eva Green. One breathes a sigh of relief that it somehow never came to pass...
It's always an effective move to cast an actor against type, particularly when it comes to putting comic actors in serious fare. But some (Robin Williams, for instance) fare better than others (Will Ferrell), and in general, people would tend to suggest that Peter Sellers falls in the latter category; even in his most acclaimed fare ("Being There," or even Kubrick's "Lolita"), he tended to have some kind of comic tinge to the performance. Not so in "Never Let Go," however, a home-grown British picture which Sellers made relatively early in his film career, and the bad reviews for which essentially scared the former "Goon Show" star away from more dramatic roles for good. Which is a shame, because he's actually terrific in the film, which is itself something of a hidden gem, and one can only imagine where his career would have gone had the notices been more positive. Sellers actually plays second fiddle to Richard Todd ("The Dam Busters," "Saint Joan") who takes the lead part of John Cummings, an unsuccessful salesman whose car is stolen by thief Tommy (pop star Adam Faith), who works for crooked garage owner Lionel Meadows (Sellers). Cummings, who faces ruin if he doesn't have a car for work, becomes obsessed with Meadows, enlisting his mistress (Carol White) to bring him down. This isn't a crime film where millions of pounds or hauls of jewellery are at a stake; this is bottom-of-the-ladder stuff, an ordinary man in conflict with an ambitious but small-scale hood, and it's all the more engaging for it, particularly with a bravely impotent performance from Todd, and a quietly terrifying, and genuinely impressive turn from Sellers without a single laugh resulting. Director John Guillermin went on to success with "The Towering Inferno" in the U.S., but this might actually be his crowning achievement.
Legendary filmmaker Jules Dassin ("The Naked City") was forced into making "Night and the City" in London by Fox chief Daryl Zanuck, who was concerned that, due to the blacklisting going on in Hollywood, it would be the last film Dassin ever made. (He would go on to make films for the next two decades, although mostly in France, most notably "Rififi" and "Topkapi".) "Night And The City," which deviates significantly from the novel by Gerald Kersh, concerns an American hustler (Richard Widmark) in London, convinced that he can rig the city's underground wrestling circuit. Among other things, he plans on taking control away from the mob boss currently in charge (Herbert Lom) by appealing to his father, a retired wrestler (real-life former wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, who many in the production assumed was dead). There's something very nervous and dangerous about "Night and the City," possibly informed by what was happening in Dassin's real life, but it's a palpable atmosphere that permeates the entire film. The cast of characters is appropriately colorful (we love the laid back menace Francis Sullivan brings as a club owner, Googie Withers as a tenacious female hustler and the slinky seductiveness of Gene Tierney, another Zanuck suggestion due to problems in her own life) and the lush black-and-white photography reeks of post-war desolation (its muted archways and underground vibe recalls Carol Reed's "The Third Man"). Two totally different versions of the movie were released in the U.K. and America (with two completely different scores); Dassin has endorsed the American cut, complete with a bleaker ending, as his preferred version.