[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
McVicar isn’t a bad film, but it emphatically fails to be the brilliant one it could have been. Director and co-writer Tom Clegg not only hasn’t solved the problems inherent in the material, he hasn’t faced them; maybe he didn’t notice they were there. The story is that of John McVicar, criminal, jailed in the mid-Sixties for armed robbery, who escaped twice from jail, committed more robberies whilst out, and ended up, in 1970, recaptured and facing a 26-year sentence. This time McVicar devoted his term inside to changing his life. He enrolled as an external student and gained a first-class degree from London University – a dazzling achievement in the circumstances and a central fact, surely, in his story. Yet Clegg, instead of exploring the contradictions and hidden brilliance of the man, ignores this side of him, ignores the crucial last stretch (which led the real-life McVicar to get earliest possible parole in 1978), and bungs in the relevant information only at the very last moment as a closing caption. McVicar becomes just another crime movie, one which ends at the point where it should have become really interesting. Not only that: Clegg adds at the outset another caption suggesting that his film has been heavily fictionalised, as if he had no faith in the intriguing story.
The first half of McVicar is Big House melodrama, the second half thick-eared thuggery with injections of sentimentality. Clegg seems to have no emotional or moral engagement with his subject matter, but handles it with what might be called a touch of the Friedkins. Watered-down imitation Friedkin at that. The headbanger techniques of The French Connection or Cruising may be too cynically calculated to attain the status of art, but they are at least consistent and presented with considerable finesse. The style of McVicar, by contrast, is mere TV show-off: loud noises, staccato editing, lots of rack focus. At one point, menace, personified by a psycho prisoner trying to cut in on McVicar’s escape plan, is conveyed by wire mesh in hard, sharp focus whilst said psycho is just a looming blur, for all that he’s actually positioned just an inch or two behind it. Oh dear, yet another British director who’s made too many commercials. Admittedly, this pictorial fetish does lead to one unoriginal but nice composition at the end, where McVicar’s last recapture has nine-tenths of the screen taken up by McVicar and policeman-with-gun-to-his-head, and the top lefthand corner showing us, in hard definition, the silent screaming of McVicar’s common-law wife.
Roger Daltrey, after being lost midst the wastes of Lisztomania, is a convincingly brutal McVicar, but can’t manage the transition to showing us an inner decency as the tail-end of the film requires. He gets no help from script or direction. An early shot of him reading a Moravia novel in his cell is presumably in there to suggest hidden reserves of sensitivity and intelligence, but it’s far too bald a touch and doesn’t link up with anything. When, after escaping, McVicar returns home and runs upstairs to see the little son who can’t remember him, there’s no expression at all on Daltrey’s face. The joys of domesticity, which should be utterly convincing to us, are just shots of McVicar playing with wife and kid in the park; in any case, these are offset by an episode where McVicar avails himself of a tart to make up for lost time. All this leaves us with little reason to suppose Clegg had any interest in depicting John McVicar as an honest man – which in turn forces us to question his motives in depicting so much brutality and sleaze. At least he doesn’t make his convicts loveable, though it seems dubious to present the cop who makes the final arrest as being on the take and collaring McVicar on the orders of the underworld rather than for police reasons.
The film does feature a really good performance from Adam Faith as a chirpy co-escaper; and though the episode involving Georgina Hale as the cure for prison celibacy is really shamelessly sexist, it’s nice to see her again, even for so short a time. The hard-rock score supervised by Jeff Wayne is largely inappropriate, and inevitable comparisons with Escape from Alcatraz do not work in the film’s favor. Had Clegg adopted that film’s less-is-more principle, this might have been a major British film. As it is, Joseph Losey’s 20-year-old The Criminal (aka The Concrete Jungle) is, for all its flaws, both more convincing as a portrait of prison life and more alarming as a view of the professional criminal’s mentality.
© 1981 Pierre Greenfield
Direction: Tom Clegg. Screenplay: John McVicar and Tom Clegg, after the book by McVicar. Cinematography: Vernon Layton. Production design: Brian Ackland-Snow. Editing: Peter Boyle. Music: Jeff Wayne. Production: Roger Daltrey, Roy Baird, Bill Curbishley.
The players: Roger Daltrey, Adam Faith, Ian Hendry, Cheryl Campbell, Georgina Hale, Billy Murray, Anthony Haygarth, Steven Berkoff, Brian Hall.
A pdf of the original issue can be found here.