Villain (1971 film)

Villain is a 1971 gangster film directed by Michael Tuchner and starring Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport and Donald Sinden. It is based on James Barlow's 1968 novel The Burden of Proof. This was first feature for the director, Michael Tuchner, who had only worked in television.[3]

Meet Vic Dakin. Then wish you hadn't.
Directed byMichael Tuchner
Produced byJay Kanter
Alan Ladd, Jr.
Elliott Kastner (executive producer)
Written byDick Clement
Ian La Frenais
Al Lettieri (adaptation)
Based onnovel The Burden of Proof by James Barlow
StarringRichard Burton
Ian McShane
Nigel Davenport
Donald Sinden
Fiona Lewis
Music byJonathan Hodge
CinematographyChristopher Challis
Edited byRalph Sheldon
Distributed byMGM-EMI (UK)
Release date
  • 26 May 1971 (1971-05-26)
Running time
98 min.
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box officeover £1 million (UK) (est.)[2]

In a growing trend for movies of the same era and genre (Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection for example) some of the violence is quite graphic especially during the heist and foreshadows several 1970s cop TV shows such as The Sweeney, Target and Special Branch.


Ruthless East End gangster Vic Dakin has plans for an ambitious raid on the wages van of a plastics factory. This is a departure from Dakin's usual modus operandi and the job is further complicated by his having to work with fellow gangster Frank Fletcher's firm.

The film's intricate sub-plots explore Dakin's sadistic nature, his relationship with Wolfie and his irritation at having to work with Frank Fletcher's seemingly weak brother-in-law Ed Lowis. Other parts of the story follow Wolfie's bisexual relationship with Venetia and Dakin, the blackmail of MP Gerald Draycott to provide a cast-iron alibi for Dakin and the dogged detectives Bob Matthews and Tom Binney pursuing Dakin.




The film was written by an unusual combination of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, two well-known British comedy television writers, working from a treatment by the American actor Al Lettieri, renowned for his 'tough-guy' image in films such as The Godfather and The Getaway as well as for his real-life associations with the New York Gambino Family.

They based their screenplay on Burden of Proof, a novel by James Barlow.[4] The Chicago Tribune called it a "sizzling, compelling book".[5] Coincidentally, James Barlow mentions Richard Burton in his book during a scene where Dakin's barrister asks a female witness if she likes and admires the actor Richard Burton to sow doubt in the jury's mind about her identification evidence. Though several of the main characters and important situations carry over from the source novel, Clement and La Frenais altered the plot considerably.


Burton wrote in his diaries that he was approached to make the film by Elliott Kastner, who had produced Where Eagles Dare with Burton,

It is a racy sadistic London piece about cops and robbers - the kind of 'bang bang - calling all cars' stuff that I've always wanted to do and never have. It could be more than that depending on the director. I play a cockney gangland leader who is very much a mother's boy and takes her to Southend and buys her whelks etc but in the Smoke am a ruthless fiend incarnate but homosexual as well. All ripe stuff.[6]

Burton charged a million dollars a film but agreed to make it for no salary in exchange for a larger percentage of the profits. "These are the times of economies for everyone making pictures" said Burton. "And actually working this way - if you can afford it and don't mind waiting for your money - is far more exciting for the actor. You feel more involved in everything rather than just like an old hired hand."[3]

Burton said the producers got him to do the film through "great American conmanship. One of the producers said to me - 'I bet if I offered you the part of a cockney gangster you'd turn it down, wouldn't you?'. And of course one's immediate response is to say - don't be daft of course I wouldn't - and the next thing you know you've got a script in your hand".[3] Burton admitted he always wanted to play a gangster, having long admired Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. "I suppose like the fat man who would have loved to be a ballet dancer."[3] "I usually play kings or princes or types like that" said Burton during filming. "I've never played a real villain... Interesting type. I'm not sure about this film. We'll see."[7]

In 2013 Ian McShane said that he had mixed feelings about playing Richard Burton's bisexual lover. "After kissing me, he's going to beat the hell out of me and it's that kind of relationship – rather hostile. It was very S&M. It wasn't shown in the film. He said to me, 'I'm very glad you're doing this film.' I said, 'So am I Richard.' He said, 'You know why, don't you?' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'You remind me of Elizabeth.' I guess that made the kissing easier."[8]


The film was shot over ten weeks in late 1970. Exteriors were shot on location in the East End of London.[3]

Box office

British exhibitors voted Burton the most popular star at the local box office in 1971, although Villain was not listed among the top ten most popular films.[9] On 30 May 1971 Richard Burton wrote in his diary that Villain "a goodish film but so far isn't doing very well in the States but has not yet opened in Britain and the Commonwealth where it should do better".[10] On 21 August 1971 he wrote that the film's director was "whassisname" and that he

Received a cable... from [executive] Nat Cohen saying the notices for [the film]... superb and great boxoffice, and another cable said we expect a million pounds from UK alone. That means about $1/2 m for me if I remember correctly. There is no accounting for differing tastes of Yanks and English critics. Villain was received badly in the US and with rapture in the UK. I know it is cockney and therefore difficult for Yanks to follow but one would have thought the critics to be of sufficiently wide education to take it in their stride. The English critics, after all, are not embarrassed when they see a film made in Brooklynese. Anyway I am so delighted that it is doing well in UK. Otherwise I would have doubted E's and my judgement in such matters. I thought it was good and she said she knew it was good. The American reaction was therefore a surprise.[11]


The film received generally bad reviews. Mainly because it was seen as a veiled portrait of the Kray twins who had been jailed for life in March 1969.[12] It has been described as a "disappointingly histrionic London gangster movie".[13] In 2009, Empire named Villain #2 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably).[14]


  1. Moody, Paul (19 October 2018). EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema. Springer. p. 112.
  2. Burton, 17 August 1971
  3. Burton Turns Cockney and Cruel for 'Villain' Johnson, Patricia. Los Angeles Times 27 Dec 1970: m1.
  4. Richardson, Maurice (21 July 1968). "CRIME RATION". The Observer. p. 23.
  5. Rosenzweig, A.L. (8 September 1968). "THRILLERS". Chicago Tribune. p. 14.
  6. Burton, 9 July 1970
  7. The Prime of Mr. Burton? By BERNARD WEINRAUB. New York Times 6 Dec 1970: 171.
  8. "Catching Up with Ian McShane | Out Magazine". 9 February 2010. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  9. Peter Waymark. "Richard Burton top draw in British cinemas." Times [London, England] 30 Dec. 1971: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 July 2012.
  10. Burton, 30 May 1971
  11. Burton 21 August 1971
  12. Street, Sarah (2009). British National Cinema. Routledge. p. 113. ISBN 9781135253349.
  13. Berry, David (1994). Wales and cinema: the first hundred years. University of Wales Press. p. 273. ISBN 9780708312568.
  14. "The 20 Greatest Gangster Movies you've never seen …probably by Empire". Retrieved 4 June 2019.


  • Burton, Richard, The Richard Burton Diaries.
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