Coming just before director Joseph Losey acquired international renown, The Criminal (aka Concrete Jungle) might best be described as half genre film, half art film. It also demonstrates a not entirely comfortable combination of, on the one hand, capital R “Realism,” including considerable footage shot in a real prison and the use of idiomatic, heavily accented, often nearly impenetrable dialog with, on the other, blatantly contrived and manipulative conventions. Ultimately, it is unclear whether the film is more interested in fulfilling those genre expectations or in providing a close look at the English underworld. The results are inevitably uneven, but also intermittently powerful.
The protagonist, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) is a working class thief whom we first meet as he serves the last day of a prison sentence before returning to the outside world. Bannion is a Big Man inside, but when he gets out of prison, he’s frustrated by the way he’s treated by a faceless, nameless Boss. He nonetheless masterminds a successful heist. Through contrivances that are not entirely clear, however (thanks largely to those impenetrable accents which obscure the motivation so consistently that the violent action and attitudes often seem to explode out of nowhere), he ends up back in prison. Through equally murky plot mechanics, he’s able to escape, but it turns out the whole thing has been a setup created by the Boss.
So much for the generic ingredients of The Criminal, but they don’t really convey what makes the film interesting. For Baker makes Bannion seem (and almost even look) like a coiled wire, waiting and ready to unwind with merciless (though not sadistic) brutality whenever crossed. He is not remotely likable, but at the same time, he has undeniable presence and a certain rough integrity. The story somewhat implausibly positions him as a lone wolf battling an organization beyond his control. To the extent we can accept that contrivance, he is even slightly sympathetic. So when things start to go wrong, we can share Bannion’s frustrations, without having any illusions about his personal qualities.
How much of that dual nature results from Losey’s contributions is difficult to say, but such ambiguity is typical of the director’s best work. With the exception of the scenes with Johnny’s girlfriend Suzanne (Margit Saad), The Criminal lacks the floating, indefinable eroticism for which the director is famous. The film does contain plenty to remind us that Losey was originally viewed as a director of nearly hysterically violent action. Most of the violence in the film is of the bare knuckles variety, but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing. The very brutality of it helps to keep Bannion at a distance. And yet, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Criminal is that its thoroughly predictable, almost trite ending feels almost tragic. That emotional complexity, those unresolved feelings, and the awareness of the material’s weakness even as we react strongly to it are pure Losey.