Dangerous dandies

Mike Hodges' new film, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, with male rape at its centre, is strong stuff. But there's a tradition of sexual ambiguity in British crime films. Ryan Gilbey reveals all
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The Independent Culture

With today's release of the revenge drama I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, from Mike Hodges, and next week's reissue of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's avant-garde thriller Performance, audiences can again sample a breed of film that Britain does frighteningly well but American film-makers wouldn't touch with someone else's bargepole. You might call it the gay gangster movie, only that doesn't quite cover it. There are no gay characters in Hodges' picture; just the vague suspicion of homosexuality that is cast on Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a wide boy who has killed himself after being raped. It makes the men around him very nervous. If dashing Davey, with his spivvy suits and his two blondes on each arm, could be penetrated, then it's open season on heterosexual males everywhere.

Performance, which was made in 1968 but held back until 1970 because Warner Bros was so ashamed of it, isn't strictly gay either. The bohemian commune in darkest Notting Hill in which the movie is largely set is a hothouse of unmarshalled desires; gay sex is just one item on a long and exotic in-house menu. However, the film is part of a tradition in modern British cinema of narratives that locate sexual confusion or ambiguity in exclusively masculine criminal environments. Americans don't seem alert to that, or interested in it. I don't think it comes down to conservatism - after all, there is no shortage of gay westerns, even if most of them have stayed in the closet, or the saloon, or wherever it is that gay cowboys hide their pretty selves.

I think of the British crime picture and I see runty men with pockmarked faces bent over cheap revolvers in low-ceilinged rooms. Where gay men are tolerated in these situations, they are likely to be regarded as jazzy mascots. Think of Colin (Paul Freeman), the poor stooge knifed in the public baths at the start of The Long Good Friday (1980) just as he is getting foxy with a stud played by Pierce Brosnan (who would, of course, go on to play the gayest heterosexual man in cinema). The grief felt by Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) over the death of Colin is palpable, but there is a sense, too, that this gay chum was an accessory, a keepsake, that served only to enhance Harold's heterosexuality, much as Rod Stewart seemed even more straight (if that were possible) for having a gay best friend - also murdered and martyred - in his song "The Killing of Georgie Part 1".

It is from such dank, sad scenarios that the most authentic portraits of British criminal life have emanated, rather than from the faux-cockney burlesques favoured by Guy Ritchie. It was no leap of the imagination, for instance, for the makers of Villain (1971) to conceive of Vic Dakin, a vicious mummy's boy characterised by repressed homosexuality and psychotic outbursts: that little charmer, played by Richard Burton, was based on Ronnie Kray. You can find sex and violence stirred up together in the vulture-like mob boss Sam Ross, played menacingly by Harold Pinter, in Mojo (1997): he molests the boys under his wing, while every man in the film is in thrall to young Silver Johnny, the virginal pop idol who stands to make them a fortune. Big, tough men cooped up in a room with this pretty slip of a kid - there's an image to embody British gangster cinema for you.

Even Guy Ritchie made a contribution, perhaps inadvertently, by casting Brad Pitt as the sex object in Snatch (2000), a film whose contempt for all things female is epitomised by its inelegant title. Ritchie doesn't make films about women. He understands them even less well than he understands men. But his work can be oddly revealing of male desire. There's Pitt, bare-chested and fawned over (by men), in Snatch, while in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1997) a man beats a colleague to death with a giant rubber penis.

The difference with Ritchie's films is that he stumbles on such moments of illumination by chance. Mike Hodges, on the other hand, knows what he's doing. He has thought a lot about the relationship between lad culture and crime movies, as well he might - in 1971 he made Get Carter, that nasty piece of work that is in the all-time top five films of every thirtysomething man who still lives with his mum and has a Pirelli calendar on the bedroom wall. "I did find the attention that Get Carter received in the 1990s very curious," Hodges says. "I think it all comes down to a certain confusion or sadness that modern men have. They don't always know who they're supposed to be, or what their roles are, do they? A character like Carter makes them nostalgic for a time that they didn't necessarily know but that they've heard about from their fathers. Carter gets things done his way, no messing about. That can be comforting to a lot of men."

The elevation of lad culture that began in the 1980s has brought pertinence to the British gangster film's commentary on the delicate façade of masculinity. But that can backfire when a distributor attempts to flog to that same "lad" audience a film that has no truck with the Loaded view of male identity. The most obvious instance was Gangster No 1 (2000), which launched Paul Bettany's career. There was more than a touch of the Krays about Bettany's nameless character, an up-and-coming thug whose callousness impresses his boss, with whom he appears to be in love. Bettany is wary about restricting the film to a queer reading. "I think he's not so much queer as autistic," he points out. "He simply covets everything about his boss's lifestyle and can't distinguish between, say, his leather sofa and his girlfriend."

Nearly four years after the film was absurdly pitched as some kind of Lock, Stock spin-off by its clueless distributor, FilmFour, Bettany is still fuming. "I remember being asked to read the voiceover for the trailer. It was supposed to begin in this celebratory voice: 'We're gangsters!' I said: 'Why are we saying that?' They said: 'Well, our survey says that men between the ages of 15 and 28 get the horn every time they hear that word "gangster".' We tried to make an adult film about violence, without glorifying violence, and then they go and trivialise it. No one who went in thinking it was going to be a lads' movie can have come out satisfied."

It will be interesting to see what those same lads will make of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, with its graphic descriptions of male rape, or Performance, in which the hoodlum Chas (James Fox) looks on aghast at the blurring of "birds" and "blokes" in the residence of the rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) - before being tempted into the stew. The movie is already a confirmed favourite of some laddish icons: Happy Mondays recorded two songs inspired by the film. A few years later, the band were vilified by NME for making homophobic comments in an interview. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of men tearing themselves in half because they don't know who they should be; what they should think or say. Perhaps they are the same men who seek comfort in watching Get Carter for the hundredth time.

What's interesting about Chas's initiation into sexual freedom in Performance is that his initially comical incredulity is overwhelmed by a sense of experimentation that you suspect didn't end with the on-screen action. Mention this to Roeg, who is now 76, and he will stonewall you. He isn't interested, he says, in talking about what happened off screen in any films, least of all his own. When I ask Sandy Lieberson, who produced Performance, to describe the on-set dynamic between the two directors, Roeg and Cammell, Roeg leans forward to silence his friend. "Actually, I'd rather he didn't talk about it," he tells me, quietly but sternly.

Changing tack, I enquire about the brilliant theme song, "Memo from Turner". The lyrics address the sexual tensions between the men in the film, with references to "a faggy little leather boy", a "smashing, gnashing hunk of man whose sweat shines sweet and strong/ His organ's working perfectly but there's a part that's not screwed on," and the repeated refrain: "Come now, gentlemen, your love is all I crave."

Once again, Roeg is reluctant to divulge much information. Lieberson goes to explain, and is cut short by a wave of Roeg's hand. For someone who has made such richly revealing films, you have to ask: what does the man think he's hiding?

But then, you might say that has been the question at the heart of every great British gangster film of the past 35 years.

'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' is showing now; 'Performance' opens on Friday

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