The Sergio Leone-esque ‘Once Upon a Time in …’ title format has been used so often on films like Robert Rodriguez’s OUATI Mexico, Shane Meadows’ OUATI the Midlands and Quentin Tarantino’s OUATI Hollywood that it risks getting worn out. Usually, the big reference is to Once Upon a Time in the West, but writer-director Simon Rumley looks to Leone’s later Once Upon a Time in America to craft an epic gangster drama that’s also a portrait of British social history and at once a celebration of East End-Soho-Aintree-Old Bailey mythology and a deconstruction of it.
Like most true-life gangster films, it has to deal with the thorny issue of making nuanced drama out of the lives and crimes of blokes spent decades working on their character arcs from nasty bastard to thoroughgoing cunt. Rumley’s chosen subjects, Jack ‘Spot’ Comer (Terry Stone) and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory) didn’t even have the decency to go down in a hail of bullets to provide iconic death scenes and some sense of retribution. Any pain they suffer – and both receive as many brutal beatings as they dish out – scarcely outweighs that they cause, and both have an interestingly squirmy screen presence, as if working hard on trying to be likeable but can’t keep it up and would rather punch you in the face to get what they want. Rumley can climb into the minds of warped individuals, whether the clothes-obsessive of Fashionista or the cracked yachtsman of Fashionista, but here spreads his attention throughout a very large cast … still finding time for distinctive, unusual storytelling like the simple snapshot montage of everyone hearing the news on VE Day or a hospital visit (as Jack brings grapes to a lieutenant he’s unjustifiably duffed up) that ranks with Laurel and Hardy’s ‘hardboiled eggs and nuts’ sketch in terms of dramatic perfection.
The film begins in the 1930s, with the Jewish Comer rallying locals against Oswald Mosley and signing up with reigning boss Darky Mulley (Geoff Bell) while Billy is on the fringes of a rival outfit run by hardnut Alf White (Jamie Foreman) and his softer son Harry (Justin Salinger). The rise and fall pattern follows inevitably, as played out in rackets all over the world and gangland dramas from the first Scarface onwards … when Mulley steps aside, Comer becomes ‘King of the Underworld’, getting early prison relase to go in the army then out of the forces by feigning (or actually) being mad (ie: too uncontrollably violent to fight), and master of the blitz-era fiddle. His biggest coup is stealing an unimaginable wealth of ration coupons. Billy, also jailed early in his career, makes an inside connection with Frankie Fraser (Roland Manookian, mimicking Udo Kier’s look as Dracula) and writes a fan letter to Comer to get in with his gang when he gets out. Of course, Billy goes from minion to rival, and Comer still has to reassert himself over and over against the younger White and racetrack fixer Albert Dimes (Doug Allen).
Early on, it’s established that the fact of the death penalty for murder means that these gangsters – unlike virtually every other screen hoods – go out of their way not to kill anyone during their violent raids (a lot of guards get coshed, though) and their inter-gang battles are fought with many, many beatings augmented by razor-slashes. Fraser earns his ‘Mad’ soubriquet by torturing hung-up enemies with darts, and there’s a sense that the escalation of violence – the last scene introduces the Kray Brothers – will inevitably start racking up a body count, but in the meantime the repetition of folks being set on alone and battered senseless becomes almost comical (with everyone sporting bloodied bandages). The sketch-like punchlines of folks in witness boxes professing not to see their assailants in court while judges and briefs know they’re lying are also darkly amusing. If the women are peripherals, then they are at least treated better than in Leone’s films … we meet Hill’s suffering wife Aggie (Holly Earl) and more aggressive girlfriend Gypsy (Kate Braithwaite), who tortures and coaxes a tied-up victim with a lot more subtlety (and, probably, effectiveness) than Mad Frankie and his human dartboards … while Comer late in life marries an Irish girl (Nadia Forde), who gets impatient with mobsters acting like kids.
For an inexpensive British film, it’s daring in its look and feel – the location manager deserves a lot of credit for finding so many period properties and the set decorators give them a distinctive, unglamorous, convincing look and the drab austerity tone is only occasionally broken by something as violently, gorgeously red as a row of vintage mail vans. With sparing use of period pop songs – not in the famous versions – and new material (lyrics by Rumley) that evokes both Brecht and Weill and Chas and Dave, it has a different sound, too. Most gangland biopics are, whatever the intention, exercises in nostalgia – they only hurt each other, they wore snappy suits, they had amusing nicknames. This isn’t – this is about horrible people who were mostly miserable, even when ahead of the game, and represented a country cheerlessly turning in on itself, where love and honour and friendship meant nothing really and codes were only observed so long as the man on top was hard enough or well-connected enough to make demands with a smile.