Between 1971, the year Get Carter was released, and 1980, when The Long Good Friday came out, the British made no great gangster films. If truth be told, no British crime films of any kind from this period can be called masterpieces. But during that decade, there were a few imperfect gems produced – films that never quite got the respect or attention they deserved. One such film is 1977's The Squeeze, directed by Michael Apted. A director of sterling versatility – Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), The World is Not Enough (1999), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), the Up Series of documentary films, to name a few – Apted began his career in television, where he learned to shoot quickly and on location. The Squeeze was his third fiction feature, and his skill at shooting all around London, in natural light, and using hand-held cameras, is evident. Filmed very much in rough neighborhoods, the movie depicts late-seventies London with documentary-level clearness, and there’s an unpolished quality to its look that holds up well today. It's fascinating to see ordinary pubs where working stiffs drink, a porn film district crowded with patrons, a pre-gentrified Notting Hill with boarded up houses everywhere, abandoned spots under elevated highways where drunks congregate at night by fires. It's a London where tension and criminal enterprise exist as things you'd expect to flourish.
The plot is simple. Alcoholic ex-cop Jim Naboth (Stacey Keach, playing a Brit) is unemployed and just out of rehab when he finds himself pulled into a kidnapping case. A group of gangsters has abducted his ex-wife, Jill (Carol White), and the daughter she's had with her current husband, Foreman (Edward Fox). The daughter, Christine, is about seven. The reason they've snatched the mother and daughter is to hold them as leverage in a scheme to get one million pounds out of Foreman, a rich businessman. It's clear they have a robbery planned against an armored vehicle from Foreman's business that on a certain day will be loaded with cash, and what they're asking Foreman to do is create the conditions for a smooth heist. He'll come away seeming the victim and they'll get their money. And Foreman, understandably stressed by the abduction, is almost willing to accept their demands until he agrees to let Naboth help him. Naboth will try to prevent the heist and rescue Jill and Christine. As an ex-copper, he has the nerves and experience for the job. But even after rehab, his drinking continues at a fierce rate. Too often he's more focused on getting to the pub and having his next glass of sherry than on investigating anything.
As I say, pretty simple. But it's not the plot that makes The Squeeze a memorable movie. It was adapted from a 1974 novel called Whose Little Girl Are You? by David Craig, a pseudonym used by prolific Welsh novelist James Tucker, and the script by Leon Griffiths has its unconventional side. Though the story is linear, the script zigs and zags a lot. It takes its time to pursue odd byways. Much in the way of character detail is packed into its 104 minute running time, and the film's strength lies in its characters, in how it portrays complex people creating and reacting to pressure. Everyone's flawed, starting with Naboth. Stacey Keach's British accent may waver from scene to scene, but the commitment he displays to showing us a man with problems never does. We first meet Naboth when he exits the subway one night, staggering. It turns out he's so inebriated he can't keep himself upright during the escalator ride toward the street. He loses his balance and takes a long hard tumble down the escalator steps. Subway police arrive, carting him away on a stretcher, and at the hospital, he receives treatment. His physical injuries heal. But no matter how much better shape he's in when he returns to the outside world, everything we see him do later is colored by this first view of him. It reminds us of how low he's capable of falling. Every time he takes a drink afterwards, we wonder whether he'll slide off the wagon completely. Will he abandon the kidnapping case to devote himself to alcohol? If he's the guy who holds in his hands the fate of Jill and Christine’s lives, well, they may not make it. Suspense is created from the mere fact that our so-called hero may not be up to the job at hand.
Nevertheless, he has allies. From the moment he leaves rehab, through much of his investigation, he's accompanied by his friend, Teddy (Freddy Starr), who Naboth as a cop once arrested. After the arrest, Naboth did something beneficial for him, and Teddy stands by him now through dangerous encounters and his drinking tribulations. When Naboth, after taking a beating from thugs, winds up naked in the street near his house, a woman neighbor offers him her coat so he can cover himself. She doesn't seem surprised to see him in such a state. To those who know him, his decency comes through. We believe Naboth when he tells Teddy, “Every morning, when I get up, I try…You oughta try as hard as I do.” Yes, he drinks too much, but it takes every ounce of his willpower to get through the days without drinking even more. He's struggling to raise two boys (not without assistance from others, like a nurse he met in the hospital) and his boys love him. We know he has a moral compass or he wouldn't be taking the risks he does on behalf of his ex-wife. Jill left him and the two boys; he didn't leave her. Naboth never expresses much fondness for her or the daughter she had with Foreman, but when his sons badmouth Jill, he defends her. He reminds them that she's still their mother. Naboth has a candor and a vulnerability that are appealing, and setbacks and embarrassments don't seem to faze him. He can take a beating with the best of them, but he's no Mike Hammer tough guy type, no British “hard man.” He's a very human sort for a gangster flick to have as a protagonist, and Stacey Keach inhabits him without a whit of vanity.
The woman kidnapped, Jill, is played by English actress Carol White. She'd made a splash as Peter Sellers' girlfriend in Never Let Go (1960), and during the sixties, she was a rising star in Britain. She starred in two dramas directed by Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966) and Poor Cow (1967), as well as a swinging London movie from Michael Winner, I'll Never Forget What's'isname (also 1967). Being 34 when The Squeeze was made, she was already on the downswing due to drug and alcohol abuse, but she apparently she kept herself together for this film. She delivers a convincing performance as a mother trying to protect both herself and her daughter from a group of male captors.
The situation, of course, bristles with tension. The four guys, led by Keith (David Hemmings of Blow-Up fame) hold Jill and Christine inside a house while waiting four days to do the heist. Boredom alternates with bickering; Keith tries to get the little girl to speak on tape so her father will have proof she's alive. Everyone simmers, and when Keith challenges Jill to backgammon to break up the daily monotony, Jill beats him game after game. Keith is witty and cultured on the surface, but this, losing to a woman, brings out his sadistic side? All at once, savoring her fear, he's talking about her body, and he says she'll have to do “a turn” for them – strip. The basic politeness the men have been treating her with so far vanishes.
The scene that follows is nasty and complex. After Keith puts a love song by The Stylistics on the record player, Jill is forced to perform her strip tease. Nothing pretty about the humiliation here, but Michael Apted films Carol White in an erotic way, highlighting her physical attractiveness. Throughout the scene, past the point when she's completely naked (and presented to us from the front), White's expressive face and movements let us see every thought she's having and the painful emotions running through her. It must have been a difficult scene to film and it's some bold acting. Bold directing as well, because Apted's choice to film his actress voyeuristically challenges the viewer, or at least the male viewer, the person for whom the film was most intended. You’re implicated in Carol’s abasement if you feel any excitement watching what she’s going through.
It's not the only time the film prods the viewer morally. Heist mastermind Vic (Stephen Boyd) is much more focused and charismatic than the underwhelming hero Naboth. And when the two confront each other early in the film, with Vic and his man beating up Naboth, the contemptuous things Vic says about Naboth – that he smells, that he’s pathetic, that he’s let himself go – ring true. Who are we supposed to back here? Boyd gives a riveting performance as an Irish gangster with a wicked sense of humor, and he dominates every scene he’s in. While Naboth struggles to raise his kids, disappearing from their lives when he goes on a bender, Vic is a doting parent committed to making his daughter happy. At an equestrian event his daughter takes part in, Vic actually scolds his wife to make sure their daughter sees her mother waving encouragement for her riding. He’s well-read; when Keith expresses worry about Naboth suddenly popping up and sniffing around (Naboth once arrested Keith and put him away for three years), Vic responds with a surprising literary reference. “Coincidence,“ he says. ”That’s all it is. Happens all the time. Events occurring at the same time inexplicably or otherwise. Arthur Koestler wrote a book about it, didn’t he?” He advises his younger colleague “to read about more… instead of all that pouncing about at disco clubs.”
A gangster with an interesting worldview. The man has depth. But underneath it all, naturally, he’s vicious. He loves his own daughter but has no qualms about having another couple’s child snatched. The kidnapping scene in this movie is chilling: mother, daughter, and the pet dog herded into a van in a sunny London park. There are people nearby but no one does anything to help them. No one seems to notice. And it would seem that an act so brazen and cruel is something just the villains would do, but for this movie that’s a wrong assumption to make. Both sides, as it turns out, wind up using a child as a pawn and putting a child through absolute terror. Naboth’s motivation for his move is understandable, but that doesn’t diminish the extremity of it. Does he even get a kiss or a thank you from his ex? Not that we see. But there’s always the kiss of a comforting drink, though the movie does end on an optimistic note. Besides alcohol, as Naboth reminds us, there is something else that the Brits love to drink.
Sadly, when it opened, The Squeeze failed to get a wide release. I'm not sure why. The cast was made up of name actors, but none were huge box office draws and the studio, Warner Bros, never got behind the picture. It stands as Carol White's penultimate film (she died in 1991 at the age of 48), and Stephen Boyd, so good here and once a leading man (he had major parts in Ben Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire ) would make one more movie before dying of a heart attack. He was 45. The Squeeze itself remains somewhat obscure, but its reputation among fans of the genre is strong. Deservedly so. It's a movie worth seeking out – a compelling example of British crime cinema seventies style, grimy and grungy to the max.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.