Friday, February 22, 2013

Sitting Target (1972)

Despite having landed in prison thanks to a mysterious snitch, hardened professional criminal Harry Lomart (Oliver Reed) seems willing enough - though not happy to, mind you - to peacefully wait out the next fifteen years or so in prison. After all, his wife Pat (Jill St. John in a surprise non-awful performance) is going to be waiting for him when he gets out, so there's something to look forward to, right? Harry's disposition changes when Pat visits him to give him a particularly fine Dear John speech. Not only does she want to get divorced, but she's also pregnant by another man. Harry's not the kind of guy to take news of this sort in stride, and unsuccessfully attempts to strangle Pat at once.

A bit later, Harry and his partner and eternal best friend in crime Birdy Williams (Ian McShane) - in fact, they seem so good friends it is sometimes curious why Harry is so hung up on his wife seeing as he is also married to Birdy - break out of jail. Birdy would prefer to just flee the country, but Harry still has his murderous plans for Pat (and her elusive new man) in his heart, and Birdy's not the kind of friend who leaves his buddy just because of a minor murder plan. Or because Harry does the unthinkable for a British criminal (even of his rather brutal persuasion) and acquires a gun and starts using it quite like the bad guy in a crime movie. This sort of behaviour doesn't just increase the enthusiasm of Inspector Milton (Edward Woodward), the man in charge of protecting Pat, for his work, but also strains Harry's relations in the underworld to a breaking point. It's really just the question of how much carnage he will be able to cause before somebody gets him and Birdy. Perhaps he'll also find an answer to the question of who exactly did initially snitch on him. Harry probably won't like the answer.

Douglas Hickox' Sitting Targets belongs to the fine group of deeply pessimistic crime films (one could argue they are even more pessimistic than the classic noir movies) made in the UK during the 70s whose most famous example is of course Mike Hodges' Get Carter, and rightly so. Sitting Target is a fine example of the form too, filtering a gritty sense of reality (rather than "realism") through the lens of the sort of artificiality that is meant to heighten intensities rather than break them. There's - apart from the dramatic one - no irony in Hickox' direction. No curious camera angle, no peculiar framing of a scene is meant to point out its own artistry; everything is in the service of characters and plot.

Still, from time to time Hickox lays his obvious visual metaphors and clever camera angles on a bit too thick, not like somebody who wants to point out his own awesomeness, but as if he were afraid the audience wouldn't get what he's trying to do unless he hammers it home and then hammers it home again. A man for subtlety and ambiguity the director ain't.

Fortunately, the film only suffers from that sort of over-emphasis (which always reminds me of Eisenstein when I encounter it) in a few scenes, and isn't at all ruined by it. Hickox also shows himself adept at increasingly intense, often just slightly bizarre and highly creative action scenes. My personal favourite is a sequence where Reed has a peculiar kind of duel with two motorcycle cops in an immense mass of hanged laundry. It's the sort of scene that should be ridiculous taken at face-value but is set-up and filmed with so much cleverness and intensity it's impossible not to take it absolutely seriously.

That scene - and many others - wouldn't play quite as well if not for some rather great acting, with Reed playing the kind of violent, intense and too frequently unthinking man (critics often like to use the word "animalistic" here, but that's a cop out word to describe physical emotionality as primitive if ever I heard one) he got often typecast as with all of his immense powers of glowering and slurring his lines (an approach whose general lack of subtlety fits the film it occurs in perfectly). As is often the case in his movies, Reed's performance is the obvious main attraction in the cast (in Sitting Target's case quite logically so for plot reasons), but McShane and the other actors do more than create good foils for his various outbreaks and sudden mood shifts. The way they play it, there's more going on than the violence and the shouting, just not necessarily things Harry as a character very much caught up in his own emotions is able to realize, turning him into another crime movie protagonist caught up in things very much beyond his control and understanding.

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