Film Studies: Gangsters don't retire, they just move to Spain to write up their memoirs

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The Independent Culture

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is one of those titles with the decaying scent of pulp fiction crossed with existential pretension.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is one of those titles with the decaying scent of pulp fiction crossed with existential pretension. It's a title that brings to mind noir writers like Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), Jim Thompson (A Hell of a Woman) and Cornell Woolrich (I Married a Dead Man). You'd like to see it riding on a good film, and so it's encouraging to hear that I'll Sleep When I'm Dead concerns a retired gangster (played by Clive Owen). I mean, we know that gangsters can no more retire than gamblers or golfers. Even if they're living in the countryside or the south of Spain, taking it easy, gangsters have instincts that don't die. Put the right blunt instrument in their hands, and natural swing does the rest. They have loyalties, memories, a sense of vengeance and a certain literary inclination. In Croupier, you may recall, the central character (also Clive Owen), is working at the Golden Lion Casino, and keeping several women on the go, but thinking of becoming a novelist, too. He sees titles in his sleep.

The retired criminal is a fitting part of Blair's Britain, don't you think? He doesn't need to be on the job because he's found his niche in law-abiding society where a little bit of mischief doesn't go amiss because it's so close to the general climate (overcast, and chillier than it looks) in which people are blurring, lying, fudging and getting away with it. A gangster can retire when respectable society is no longer on the level.

And there you come to something very special about British noir - the way in which you can be a villain if society is playing fast and loose enough with the rules. This is a principle that was first spelt out (on the screen, at least) in the great Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) when the social upstart Louis Mazzini calmly murdered his way to the title of Duke of Chalfont by killing eight relatives who were all in his way (and all looking like Alec Guinness). And he'd have gotten away with it, too, but for the fact that - there's that literary itch betraying clean crime again - he wrote his stupid memoirs boasting of every lovely kill.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September and it's taken its time finding a proper British opening. There are those who have explained this in terms of the film not being very good, far too talkative, and with not enough action. On the other hand, British movie critics (as a whole) made such chumps of themselves over Croupier, in 1999, that caution is the word. You see, in Britain, Croupier was widely dismissed, and it was only in America that a few critics hailed it as having something of the great, sour, socially satirical mood of British noir about it. Not that that claim is easy - there are British enthusiasts of noir, likely to go into fits over The Usual Suspects or the idea of Quentin Tarantino, who hardly know about British noir, and who've never seen It Always Rains on Sunday, They Made Me a Fugitive or Nowhere to Go.

I haven't seen I'll Sleep When I'm Dead myself. And I'm not offering any opinions. Its director, Mike Hodges, has made a career out of inconsistency or not quite getting his act together. But Croupier was the more delightful a surprise in that it brought back the memory of Get Carter (1971), that London vs Newcastle slaughter match in which the more surreal and terse the movie becomes the better it is. In between the two, Hodges had had many false starts (it seems to me) and many signs of wanting to do something more illustrious and respectable than a nasty little crime picture.

Anyway, if I tell you that, as well as Clive Owen, it's got Charlotte Rampling as one of those women with a past, and Malcolm McDowell as someone who might have to get his face smashed in, you've got what you might call credentials. And you know that just as with McDowell there's going to be that wicked grin that wonders just how seriously you expect him to take the whole thing, so the longer you look at the frozen-faced Rampling the more you feel you're in a contest to see who will crack up first. I'm very fond of that moment, or cusp, in the English noir when really nasty behaviour is on the point of toppling over into farce. You get it in Love, Honour and Obey (an absolute gem, made a few years ago, by Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis), where Ray Winstone and Jude Law are forever on the point of breaking into giggles as they maim or torture someone else.

I daresay the English criminal gang as a private laugh-house goes back to Oliver Twist, at least. After all, the Dodger was artful and he was Anthony Newley, a hint that there'd be a musical one day. Perhaps the only way of getting away with Guinness's Fagin in the David Lean movie was to say, "Oh no governor, it's not a real Jew, not your actual kike, it's just a great actor pretending to be a Jew!" That'll bring the house down, won't it, and let you think that Fagin's gang has one eye on pilfering all the jewels and handkerchiefs in London, and another on going to the music halls.

There you are, you see, turn over an honest thief and you'll find that he's got secret ambitions to be in show business, to write a novel, or to look as spiffy as Jude Law. It's something the American Joseph Losey noticed about the English and you can see it in those electric films he made as he got the hang of Britain, from The Criminal to The Servant.

In The Criminal, Stanley Baker is the felon, the outsider, a really hard case, yet you feel that he's on the way to being suckered by modern design, getting some art up on his walls and having a foreign girlfriend. And in The Servant, you have maybe the slowest breaking-and-entering job ever filmed, in which a nasty little lower-class fellow takes James Fox and his precious house apart. And the audience is secretly conspiring with Dirk Bogarde's creepy butler because he has no manners and is going to humiliate Wendy Craig at the end of it all.

There are others - Performance, of course, Stephen Frears' The Hit (with the double-act between Terence Stamp and Tim Roth) and Alan Clarke's scary rapture on football hooligans, The Firm, with Gary Oldman as the leader. These are films that conspire against the rotten order of this Britain, and they reach a fine climax in A Question of Attribution, where Her Majesty the Queen (Prunella Scales, or Sybil from the Towers) confronts the suave Anthony Blunt (Fox again) in her own art gallery and knows that he's tainted, and enough to corrupt her whole splendid gang of looted pictures.

'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' (15) is released on Friday

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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