Get Carter eats Layer Cake during a Performance of Notting Hill… We love our gangsters don’t we? Ever since the Krays muscled into pop culture we’ve used them as the guilty pleasure in the movies. Okay, there have been gangster movies since organised crime began, but that 1960s’ thing seemed to give the genre a lease of life. Gangsters, violence, family, homosexuality, loyalty and doom – that’s what we’re talking about – yes, doom, only here it unfortunately comes with a capital ‘duh!’ Ever since the Hays committee in the USA said that crime mustn’t pay, gangsters have to get their just deserts in the final reel; of course the means to this end was a great artistic fillip to the likes of Mervyn LeRoy and Raoul Walsh. The trick is keeping it fresh.
The British noir is something else again. The antihero has to engage our concern. Watching Get Carter again after many years I was genuinely disturbed at what a nasty piece of work it was. Those heavily edited TV showings in the 1970s didn’t prepare me for the real thing. But I still didn’t want Michael Caine to get blown away on that Northumbrian beach.
My favourite British noir of all time is Performance, but well, that’s so much more isn’t it. Check out Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, and his less than complimentary assessment of director Donald Cammell. Performance did so much to establish a certain image of British gangsters post-Krays. Gang boss Harry Flowers (played by genuine East-End boy Johnny Shannon, who in a nice bit of circulatory synchronicity had a part in the 2005 Brian Jones film Stoned) warns Chas that his vendetta with enemy Joey is ‘double personal’ as they were former lovers. Flowers himself of course is sleeping with his right-hand man.
This gay subtext to gangster flicks has carried on through to current movies. Look at Ian McShane in 2000’s Sexy Beast, like Wolfe from 1971 flick Villain grown up and inheriting Richard Burton’s gang. What about Michael Gambon’s Eddie in Layer Cake; and here in London Boulevard there is more than a strong suggestion of gang boss Rob Gant’s (Ray Winstone) proclivities, probably down to a history of abuse as a child. Winstone here is a million miles from his jaunty Terry Venables-alike part as Gary ‘Gal’ Dove in Sexy Beast, himself a possible gay character as his eyeballing of the Spanish houseboy in that film would suggest. I’m not trying to establish a tendency of filmmakers to equate ‘bad’ gangsters as practicing homosexuals (while ‘good’ gangsters are straight, or keep their true tendencies latent) I’m just pointing up a theme which seems to prevail, a sort of lazy shorthand.
Colin Farrell’s Mitchel gets out of jail after doing a three-stretch for GBH. Billy (Ben Chaplin, Dorian Gray) his thick mate, wants Mitchel to come and work for local gang boss Mr Gant, collecting rents from tower blocks. An old friend of Mitchel’s is set on fire by hoodies in an underpass, and Mitchel vows revenge on the kid responsible. After preventing a possible mugging of a young woman, who asks if he is ‘a bit handy’, Mitchel is introduced to actress Charlotte who needs a minder.
Charlotte is holed up in her London home, attended by business manager Jordan, and plagued by paparazzi. We see her trying to buy sanitary towels in a local store, stared at by shoppers and followed by CCTV. Mark Kermode sees affinities between this set-up and Performance and, while the reference is there it’s a slight subtext. David Thewlis plays Jordan as a cross between Donald Sutherland’s Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes, and the late great Viv Stanshall. Keira Knightley brings all her strange fragile beauty to bear on Charlotte. She really is a hugely mannered actress but something about her brittle performances command the attention. It is certainly lucky that she has no vanity, or did not work within the great days of Hollywood, as some of her profiles display the fact she has a prominent pointy chin. And yet she is very beautiful.
Gant puts pressure on Mitchel to work for him but Mitchel wishes to go straight and run away to LA with Charlotte. Mitchel’s resistance to Gant sets up a situation which rapidly deteriorates. Gant is a horrible creation, out of control in a way that seems totally illogical. He shoots a random black man ‘pour encourager les autres’ (my quotes) and to try and bind Mitchel to him, he has the opportunity to kill Mitchel but delays it. It is reported by Billy that Gant has taken a minor character, a disgraced doctor whose old home Mitchel is allowed to live in, down to Brighton, “fucked him up the arse and cut his head off,” why does this need to happen, we can see that Gant is dangerously out of control? His interest in Mitchel has no obvious motivation. Mitchel of course must take care of business, protect his druggy sister (Anna Friel), and live to ride into the sunset.
Some of the violence is explicit, Mitchel glasses someone, but much is thankfully off-camera or out of shot. And yet there is a seedy unpleasantness about proceedings, which is as it should be, but this atmosphere of corruption infects the film. There is a killer cast. Farrell, Winstone, Thewlis, Friel, Chaplin, but also Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan and Sanjeev Bhaskar, rather typecast as an Indian doctor, but nicely tied-in as Mitchel’s sister’s lover.
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I wanted this to be a great film, but it is rather a disappointment. Written and directed by William Monahan, who won the screenwriting Academy award for The Departed, it’s too derivative, and ultimately shallow. There is, however, a fantastic joke at the end, which suggests things might have been better. Thewlis’ Jordan, drugged out of his mind, has enthusiastically participated in Mitchel’s violent reprisals. Having killed a corrupt copper, he sits in the grounds of Charlotte’s country mansion, smoking a joint, with a loaded revolver beside him as uniformed police approach. As the screen fades to credits a single shot rings out, we assume Jordan has taken his own life, and then we hear him expending the rest of the cylinder, presumably upon the hapless constabulary. It’s a nice bit of unexpected writing, which the rest of the film singularly failed to deliver.