A history of violence

Do you remember post-war Britain, where gangsters hanged their bloodied victims from fifth floor windows? Where the police turned a blind eye to domestic violence because that was between a man and his wife? Where a feller could walk round of a night with a razor blade slipped in his hatband? Cinema captured them all, as if it knew that the period would later be wrongly celebrated, in later years, as a kinder and less criminal era.

In the dock: a whole line-up of crims and recidivists. Pretty boy cop-killer Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp, gunning down Dixon of Dock Green in front of the Coliseum Cinema on the Harrow Road; slick-haired, tumbledown Richard Burton in Villain, snarling at the men he maims – and the one whose shirt he unbuttons, his eyes full of dead lust; baby-faced Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock, meting out rough justice with a razor he looks too young to use for its proper purpose; mild-mannered monster Carl Boehm, patrolling the Soho streets of Peeping Tom carrying a movie camera mounted with a deadly steel spike.

Boehm’s perverted sadist is a rarity – his kind of serial killer would become commonplace in cinema after Silence of the Lambs. Most of these villains are smalltime crooks and extortioners, taking their cuts from the rents of tenants, the profits of trackside bookies, the cash boxes of family firms. The message isn’t a warning that crime does not pay, but that it’s part of everyday British life.

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