Reviewing Hostel on DVD recently had me thinking further about cinema of hostility, actually, and not just within the horror genre. No, my mind later wandered to all things underworld (though this time, not of Kate Beckinsale in leather). For all the refashioned pop flair of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn’s recent films, no one captured underclass British antagonism, resentment and its criminal acting out better than Alan Clarke.
In his day, working with the late Clarke was a sort of rite of passage for intense, up-and-coming British actors. A singular talent, the filmmaker delved into psychological torture and bellicose narratives long before they were in vogue, and his raw, unsettling visions often felt like found screeds from under a dirty, upturned rock. Clarke’s television work for the anthology series Play for Today included Psy-Warriors and Beloved Enemy, but his three best known works all delved into the psyche of violent young males.
In the late 1970s, Clarke was hired by the BBC to make a television drama about life inside a juvenile detention center. Its evocative, one-word title: Scum. A grim and graphic indictment of the British borstal system, the program was so relentlessly brutal that the horrified BBC banned its broadcast indefinitely. In defiance, Clark and his producer, Clive Parsons, refashioned the film as a feature, and loosed it upon an unsuspecting public in 1979. In it, a young Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Proposition) stars as Carlin, a juvenile thug rising to the top of an inhuman prison hierarchy amidst violence and sexual assault.
The ferocious Made in Britain, released in 1982, serves as an English forerunner to both Romper Stomper and American History X. For those who think Russell Crowe and Edward Norton have the market cornered on charismatic racists, Tim Roth debuts here as Trevor, an eloquent teenage skinhead whose random acts of sadism send him on a snarling spiral through the English justice system. Scripted by David Leland, the film is an unsparing portrait of youth fueled by hate and rage, and ruled by a swallowed depression and despair.
1988’s The Firm, meanwhile, serves as a showcase for Gary Oldman, who gives a blistering performance as Bex Bissell, a middle-class family man who also leads a violent gang of soccer hooligans. While the real roots of Oldman’s nihilistic rage run deep to 1986’s Sid and Nancy, it was this telepic that first and best harnessed his quiet temper, and served as the underpinning for future brash turns in The Professional, The Fifth Element and even Air Force One.
Though Clarke was taken too soon, dying of cancer at 55 in 1990, his stirring work lives on, and is well worth a look for anyone who fancies uncompromising portraits of youth run amok — rampaging id hardwired to nervy ambivalence. All the above titles are available separately on DVD or via a great eponymous collection from Blue Underground released earlier this year, with still galleries and cast interviews from The Firm, both versions of the incendiary Scum and another bonus — the streamlined, 39-minute Elephant, part of the inspiration for Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name. In the latter, Clarke and producer Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) explore the political violence of Northern Ireland via the stark depiction of 18 separatist murders; Boyle also sits for an audio commentary. All the films are distinctly British, but still universal in their basic enmity.