Oliver Reed, still relatively youthful (his early 30s, so early 50s in liver years), before the booze pickled his brains, is a powerhouse of simmering rage in this stylised thriller from skilled journeyman Douglas Hickox. Oli’s an ‘orribly unsavoury animal, busting out of prison just so he can knock off his old lady. It’s matter of honour, or pride, or something. Oli’s steaming pissed and it’s going to get messy.
This thriller has been compared to Get Carter, but Alexander Jacobs’ screenplay (from Laurence Henderson’s novel) lacks the same cool precision. Jacobs contributed to a number of decent scripts, two for John Boorman among them, but this is his only solo credit; maybe that’s suggestive. Reed’s Harry Lomart is in the nick, imprisoned in part for killing a man; he didn’t mean to do it, you understand. When Pat (Jill St John) - what has she done to Harry, Pat – visits, she announces that’s that and she’s got another fella. Harry promptly loses it something rotten. He decides to get out and get her. He’s has no qualms about strangling the missus, even on the understanding she’s pregnant (after all, it’s not his); she’s got it coming, the cow. During the first 10 minutes Harry announces that prison (a wretched hive of surveillance cameras and mental degradation) “makes you feel like… some animal in a cage” and goes on to prove himself a beast unleashed for the next 80.
Helping him out is Ian McShane’s Birdy Williams (I kept mishearing his name as Bertie, but this would be the last place you’d find Wodehouse’s protagonist), back when McShane was unbelievably young – he looked older than his years by the time he got round to making Lovejoy, which most of a certain generation know him best for – and pretty. Besides Hickox’s direction, and an impressive array of too-brief supporting turns (all of which might have sent the plot off on a considerably more interesting trajectory than the one it settles for) the best thing Sitting Target has going for it is the rapport between Reed and McShane. these two have a salty informality, they’re naturally as thick as thieves, partners in crime, uber-dodgy dealers. Both bring a lived-in immediacy to their roles, with Reed grimacing like a pregnant bullfrog while McShane relishes the relatively smoother customer; Birdy’s shrewder, wittier and with a smarter mouth on him.
The first 30 minutes, depicting the prison break (filming took place at Irish penitentiaries) that follows Harry’s confrontation with the trouble and strife, are outstanding. Along for the ride is the marvellous Freddie Jones (recognisable for a multitude of parts, but notables include Children of the Stones and The Elephant Man), playing posh on this occasion. It’s a taut slow-burn sequence, taking in obstacles including barbed wire fences, guard dogs (you wouldn’t want to be a guard dog that night), and obligatory ropes across sheer drops. Perhaps it’s because this sequence is so good that, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the rest of the picture fails to match it. But I suspect it’s also because the premise is so slight and askance.
There’s an unpleasantly misogynistic streak running throughout Sitting Target. I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt; that these characters are unsympathetic brutalisers, and the makers are in no way condoning such behaviour. Certainly, Oli’s initial freak out in the prison meeting room, thrusting his hand through the glass partition and attempting to strangle Pat, is shocking and intense; the fury of a maniac. The problem is, there’s an implication in the through-line that St John’s character has it coming, and every other female character we meet is a tart just waiting for a good seeing to (apart from a young June Brown, that is).
No sooner are the convicts in the back of a van bound for freedom than a bit of crumpet is on tap. Hickox stages a curiously arresting tableau, with antic-eyed Oli, Freddie Jones and no less than Camp Freddie himself (Tony Beckley) in the foreground while McShane ruts away behind them (“She’s all yours now”). Arresting as this is, the filmmaker’s eye doesn’t get behind the story with the intelligence of say, Carter, and without that distance it becomes a little to entranced by the mischief and worse these bad boys get up to. A closer comparison to Target’s visuals would be the excesses of The Ipcress File (a glorious movie, but with mental camerawork). There’s an indifference to what happens to these lovelies. You can tell there’s thought behind some of what we see (Harry keeps himself pure so as not to sully the revenge on his treacherous bitch, and he tests out his newly acquired weapon on pornographic images adorning the gun dealer’s walls) but it sinks, or amps up, into undiscerning overkill. Even the poster instructs us that Harry is an animal (in case we thought we were supposed to like the guy?) but Hickox revels in Lomart’s unstoppable carnage.
That said, much of what Hickox comes up with is magnificent. If I were awarding points for style alone, this picture would get full marks. I was going to say Hickox brings the sensibility of a horror veteran to his action scenes, but then I remembered it’s his son Anthony who directs all the horror movies. Douglas made Theatre of Blood the following year, rightly his most celebrated picture, but he also directed John Wayne in London atrocity Brannigan and the ill-advised Zulu Dawn (also, Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes in a quite good mid ‘80s Hound of the Baskervilles). His approach lends scenes a heightened, disturbing, sometimes ghoulish frisson. It isn’t only the action; Hickox inordinately fond of low angled shots, overhead shots, and he’ll stage an innocuous moment with Dutch angles, lending his South London milieu an off kilter, skewy quality that underpins the general seaminess. It’s a strange and fascinating mixture of ‘70s urban decay and filmmaking finesse.
The locations are creatively used at all times. Edward Woodward, a year off from The Wicker Man, turns up as a copper attempting to protect Pat from Harry’s horrendous hands (except that Harry has purchased a Mauzer – well beaten up the dealer and taken it – so as to kill her from a distance) and engages in a brutal bout of fisticuffs with him on the vertiginous balcony of her flat. But then Eewawoowa pretty much exits the picture. In the striking sequence that follows Harry, pursued by motorcycle rozzers, stands amid a maze of hanging washing as they encircle him. Hickox keeps his camera in tight, and the effect is both hallucinatory and coherent (perhaps this is down to the least imaginative of Bond movie directors – and that’s saying something – John Glen, handling the editing).
Soon after we’re treated to another cameo – Frank Finlay as former accomplice Marty Gold (who exhibits yet another bit of totty to be passed around the men; “Any friend of Marty’s…”) – and another bravura sequence involving a mirrored staircase (the height of gaudy excess). The grand climax involving a prolonged car chase is effectively constructed but less engaging. Because I didn’t see the twist in the tale coming doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. It’s rather clumsy and strains credulity; such a convoluted scheme that could have gone wrong at any moment? However, full marks to Hickox for visual hyperbole as Harry lets loose a hail of bullets against a rising sun.
Stanley Myers, whose career extends from the first season of Doctor Who to The Deer Hunter and a run of Nic Roeg films, provides a wonderful score; like so much here, the craftsmanship exceeds the quality of the founding material. Sitting Target is extremely well directed, with some indelible performances and a fine soundtrack, but the picture itself doesn’t really leave the mark it should. It’s difficult enough to get behind a picture about a leering brute. Compounding this, Harry’s plan is so unhinged Hickox has no option but to become enmired by its B movie trappings.