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.
Essentially a standard story about a heist, there are intricate sub-plots depicting:Dakin's sadistic natureDakin's relationship with WolfieWolfie's bisexual relationship with Venetia and DakinDakin's irritation at having to work with Frank Fletcher's seemingly weak brother-in-law: Ed LowisMP Gerald Draycott being blackmailed by Dakin (via Wolfie) to provide a cast-iron alibiDetectives Bob Matthews and Tom Binney pursuing Dakin and Lissner.
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.Richard Burton as Vic DakinIan McShane as Wolfe LissnerNigel Davenport as Bob MatthewsFiona Lewis as VenetiaJoss Ackland as Edgar LowisT. P. McKenna as Frank FletcherDonald Sinden as Gerald DraycottCathleen Nesbitt as Mrs DakinColin Welland as Tom BinneyTony Selby as DuncanDel Henney as WebbJohn Hallam as TerryJames Cossins as BrownAnthony Sagar as DannyClive Francis as VivianElizabeth Knight as PattiShirley Cain as Mrs Matthews
The film was written by an unusual combination of two well-known British comedy television writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and 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.
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.
According to Melvyn Bragg's 1988 biography Richard Burton: A Life, the film was a terrible flop and helped erode Burton's status as a box office star. Two years before Villain, Burton had played a homosexual hairdresser in the comedy Staircase (in which Cathleen Nesbitt also played his mother), which had proved a huge bust at the box office, despite the talents of co-star Rex Harrison and director Stanley Donen. A gay love scene between Burton and co-star Ian McShane was cut from Villain, possibly as it was felt it wouldn't boost ticket sales, as cinema audiences already had not accepted Burton, one of the cinema's most notorious Don Juans, as a homosexual.
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 movies.
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 were it should do better". 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.
Coincidentally, Burton was mentioned in James Barlow's 1968 novel, The Burden Of Proof, upon which the film was based. In the book, the prosecutor asks a female witnesses if she "likes the actor Richard Burton".
The film received bad reviews, and Burton—whose acting style was predicated upon the precise use of his mellifluous voice—was particularly savaged for his attempt at a Cockney accent.
The film coined a popular phrase used regularly and adapted accordingly of "Don't be a berk all your life; take a day off!"
Ian McShane revealed recently in The Daily Mail, 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."
In 2009 Empire Magazine named it #2 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably)
The character of Vic Dakin was inspired by the real life gangster Ronnie Kray, who was jailed several years before production began, in 1967. Like Kray, the character Dakin is a London underworld boss, he is a homosexual, he is obsessed with caring for his mother and has a secret association with a member of Parliament, portrayed as the character Gerald Draycott by Donald Sinden and based on Lord Boothby.