The trend for British gangster movies shows no signs of abating, with Layer Cake's tales of drugs, villains and shooters just the latest in a long line of similar flicks. We take a look at ten of the best...
Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels has got a bleeding lot to answer for, with thesps knifing, glassing and shooting each other on a daily basis all over the London Metropolitan area following its release. Riding on the back of Guy Ritchie's homespun success, film sets populated by villains rapidly grew in number - Essex Boys, Diamonds (the Lock Stock follow-up), Love, Honour and Obey, Honest and Sexy Beast, to name a few - were subsequently shot on the capital's streets. But let's face it, while the film is slick and funny, Nick Moran, Vinnie Jones and crew are about as cold, calculating and convincing a bunch of crims as you might find in... well, an East End absinthe bar on a Friday night. If you're going to jump on the bandwagon, it's important to turn to the right type of geezers for inspiration.
A dark, moody film noir permeated by the "tang of fish and chips," this is one of the finest British gangster films you'll see - and one of the earliest. Brighton Rock (the screen adaptation of Graham Greene's excellent novel) is notable for bringing a new vicious realism to British crime cinema. Richard Attenborough turns in a superlative performance as Pinkie Brown, who at the tender age of just 17 is a cunning, sadistic, introspective gangster. Pinkie decides to "remove" a journalist and sends the unfortunate Kolley Kibber on a flight of terror that ends in a grisly manner at a funfair. Panic-stricken, Kibber leaps onto a ghost train - but as it dashes into a tunnel he recognises his travelling companion as none other than Pinkie. Kibber's body is found washed up on the beach some hours later. No one escapes Pinkie's callous evil - he marries his young wife only to prevent her from giving the police evidence about a crime she witnessed, and in his final moments he is scheming to commit the ultimate act of silencing her. Many of the most gruesome scenes are set incongruously at racecourses and funfairs, making for nauseating brutality. Shot through with self-loathing and Roman Catholic guilt, this film has real potency.
"You're a big man, but you're out of shape. For me, it's a full-time job. Now behave." Vintage Michael Caine. London might have been swinging at this time, but so were knives and clubs, with Pakistani dissidents shot dead at the Indian High Commission, and machine-gun attacks on Middle Eastern embassies. As the violence grew more perceptible, the London of the Kray Twins began to naturally spawn film anti-heroes. Caine gives an outstanding performance as Carter, a brutal London gangster travelling off his patch to Newcastle to discover the unpleasant truth behind his brother's suspicious death. Carter is shown with his nose in Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, in an early post-modern nod. But this is where novel and film part company. Carter is no Marlowe, and shows no sympathy or humanity to any baddie or, indeed, anybody. He knifes one man in the heart, pushes another off a multi-storey car park, sends a third out to sea in a shale-truck dumper, shoots a fourth in a ferry-boat ambush, and drowns one girl by accident and another on purpose. We rest our case.
This movie opened within weeks of Get Carter and starred another big name of the time, Richard Burton. Often considered a poor relation to the Caine vehicle, it's an underrated gangster film of gritty 1970s locations and the usual formula: the planning and execution of a robbery, a torture scene and blackmail. In a barely disguised portrait of Ronnie Kray, Richard Burton is cast as Vic Dakin, the sadistic, gay East End villain with a mother fixation, while Ian McShane appears as his lover, desperate to escape. Result? A Boy's Own delight featuring a brilliant car chase during a violent wages snatch - who said the British couldn't cut the mustard in road rampages? - and even a hospital kidnap. Donald Sinden is brilliant as the sleazy, blackmailed MP who frequents high society sex parties. The film has a good British cast (watch out for a scene-stealing Nigel Davenport as the police officer in charge). Dismiss this as a potboiler at your peril.
The gritty thriller that launched Bob Hoskins' career shows the half-pint hard man in the role of an East End gangland boss whose prophetic plans to rejuvenate the Docklands area of London are being threatened. A British cinematic first, this film was gutsy enough to tackle our cousins across the Pond at a genre they had made their own, and is fascinating for the culture gaps it opens. Never before had the London underworld been laid bare in such a contemporary way. Hoskins gives a growly, charismatic performance as the kingpin brought low by phantom forces over the course of an Easter weekend, memorably treating his opponents with the single-minded, brutal violence he feels they deserve, smashing whiskey bottles over the skulls of those who betray him, cutting, beating, slicing and hanging them up (the meat hook scene is abattoir magic) and generally lending weight to the argument for more careers advice for school-leavers - this young man was deprived of a glittering career in the butchery department.