The early 1970s saw an explosion of British crime cinema. Many films looked to the underworld for inspiration and drama – in particular, its role in the urban environment of post-swinging Britain. Typical of this trend was Michael Tuchner’s Villain (1971), an effective and brutal British noir that expertly captures the souring of 1960s optimism.
Villain, which was released 50 years ago on 26 May 1971, follows the exploits of Kray-like gangster Vic Dakin (Richard Burton). He lives with his mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) but specialises in protection racketeering for local London businesses. With information of a potentially easy robbery, of a factory’s payment van, Vic and his gang join forces with another old firm for the job. But Vic is growing increasingly volatile, due to both his possessive affair with Wolfe (Ian McShane) and his increasing penchant for violence. Being caught by Detective Matthews (Nigel Davenport) seems more and more inevitable.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
An evocative record of London at the time, Tuchner’s film makes the most of the capital’s industrial remnants. With many of the locations now dramatically changed, in particular the site of its gripping finale around the derelict Nine Elms, it was a challenge to find the city once haunted by Vic and his mob. Here are five locations that still exist.
Villain’s opening involves putting the frighteners on a casino worker called Benny Thompson (Stephen Shepherd). The film’s credits open over him leaving the casino before we head back to his flat. The flat is a typical example of postwar architecture, built in the gaps that the war left between older properties. We first see a shot of its uniform windows, setting the scene for the moment when Benny will soon be enjoying the view a little too closely for comfort.
The block is Heron Court at 63 to 65 Lancaster Gate, next to the Lancaster Gate Hotel. The building is fundamentally unchanged since filming, including the marble foyer we see Vic, Duncan (Tony Selby) and Terry (John Hallam) leave through after their violent business is concluded. The site was undergoing major maintenance work at the time of visiting.
There’s nothing more important to Vic than his dear old mum, who he still lives with despite his dangerous way of life. She lives in a quaint suburban house, which is in Wandsworth at 22 Baskerville Road. Aside from the dramatic increase in cars, the road is unchanged, though a suitably old Ford was parked outside the house in question on visiting.
A character like Ian McShane’s Wolfe needs an appropriate bachelor pad for entertaining the likes of Venetia (Fiona Lewis), and what better place for a hip joint than pre-gentrified Battersea? Before we see Wolfe’s flat, Tuchner provides a shot of the road with a fantastic gas tower, part of Nine Elms gasworks, seen in the background. The road is the long and beautiful Prince of Wales Drive, looking west. The gasworks have since been demolished, but the remainder of the busy road is as it was.
In the same scene, the camera pans to the building where Wolfe lives. We see him swagger through the door of 81 to 101 York Mansions. The entrance today is a little more lavish but is virtually the same.
Villain’s main set-piece is the heist that lands all of the characters in hot water. To shoot the robbery, Tuchner went out of London to Bracknell and a stretch of land that was under heavy redevelopment at the time. The first thing we see of the surprisingly neat area is a bridge and the busy roads intertwining around it. The bridge is Mill Lane of the Jennett’s Park area and its industrial estate. Today the estate is still there though the overgrown nature of the land makes the shot difficult to recreate.
The main building used in the robbery was the Clark Easton glass factory on Ellesfield Avenue. We see the factory in various shots, as well as the construction of what was once the ICL building. The phone box in the shot was obviously fake though the tower in the background is now finished and has become the Fujitsu building, with a vast array of subsidiary buildings on the neighbouring green belt.
We see the factory from several angles before and after the robbery. The shots in question are often taken from the roundabout at the end of Ellesfield Road. Today, the road has been heavily developed and the factory is now a huge Waitrose distribution warehouse.
After the robbery, the gang end up in a stolen car heading back to London. Eventually, they decide to split and meet later. Vic and Terry are dropped off and wander to their own parked car. The location in question is Acton, specifically Ramsay Road. The evocative bridge they walk over starts at the end of the road, crossing the railway lines of nearby South Acton station.
On the other side is their getaway car. The steps lead to a roadway at the corner of Church Path and Fletcher Road. The bridge is leafier than it was but is preserved today, even if the area is now a far cry from the days when villains used its built-up maze of bricks and mortar for a quick and tidy getaway.
Villain was recently released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal.