By the tail end of the 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was in the doldrums. The British film industry, long reliant on their financial and co-production shot in the arm, was equally suffering. While the domestic market could not stretch to glossy dramas, a new vogue, befitting of the cynical times, was emerging at home and abroad, for a grittier, earthier type of crime film. Pulp fiction, as it was considered at the time, often provided the source material. The British arm of MGM released two now-considered crime classics in 1971: Get Carter, starring Michael Caine and based on Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis; and Villain, with Richard Burton playing the nasty, self-loathing titular role from a script by nominal sit-com writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, from the novel TheBurden of Proof by James Barlow. A year later after favorable returns, MGM hired screenwriter Alexander Jacobs, who had punched up a lackluster script for the Lee Marvin-starring classic Point Blank with its nascent Hollywood director, ex-pat Brit John Boorman, to script Sitting Target from the crime novel by Laurence Henderson. Far from making it a hat-trick, Sitting Target was however largely and unfairly overlooked in the pantheon of ‘70s crime cinema, until its re-appreciation in more recent years (upon its New York release in June 1972, this prison escape battering ram of a revenge film, with a brutish Oliver Reed starring, was bizarrely double-billed with One Is a Lonely Number, a drama about a woman piecing her life back together after her husband leaves her). In Australia, it lasted a mere week in theatres. However, there is much to admire in its stripped-down plot, tension-filled incidents, excellent locations, cinematography, a groovy score to rival Roy Budd’s for Get Carter, and clever direction.
Oliver Reed plays banged-up bruiser Harry Lomart, a violent robber in for a 15-year stretch for killing a security guard during a job (“they all think what’s in the bag is theirs,” he shrugs defensively), who breaks out of prison to kill his faithless wife. Reed was something of a sex symbol at the time, but a wild card, scarred from one of many pub brawls. He described himself as having the appearance of a Bedford truck, with the promise of a V8 engine. Reed was briefly, incredibly, however, considered as a replacement for Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument” secret agent James Bond after Sean Connery left the role. Cliff Goodwin, in his biography of Reed entitled Evil Spirits, came across a letter written by Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, in which he stated, “With Reed we would have had a far greater problem to destroy his image and remold him as James Bond. We just didn’t have the time or money to do that.” The actor chose, however self-destructively, to embrace his hellraiser image, and SittingTarget fits him like a lead cosh in a clenched fist. His lifer’s take on fate, “tomorrow never happens,” almost a dark reflection of Bond in its bullishness.
Reed is introduced in the nocturne confines of his cell, sleepless, exercising with a relentless drive, sweat mingling with the damp of the bricks. He finally succumbs to exhaustion from some upside-down press-ups upon two suspended pipes on the ceiling, spitting into his piss-pot and grinning, then pressing his face urgently to the barred window. His wife Pat (Jill St. John) is expected today. He doesn’t give the screws the satisfaction of how much he needs this though, insouciantly adjusting his prison jacket cuffs as he waits for the door to be unlocked and be escorted to the visiting section, along with his cheeky next cell mate and partner in crime, Birdy (Ian McShane). There are a lot of artful touches to Douglas Hickox’s direction, who might be considered a journeyman technician, but nevertheless brought us two years later the Vincent Price and Diana Rigg witty theatre land horror, Theatre of Blood (later in the film Harry retrieves his money stash from the rafters of the derelict Putney Hippodrome theatre before taking a bow on the dusty stage to the empty seats: the same theatre was later used as Price’s character’s hideaway). Cons and visitors are obscured through ironwork and screens, a large pendulum mournfully marking time, backgrounds in deep focus. Hickox and his cinematographer Edward Scaife, who lensed such tough guy classics as The Dirty Dozen and Dark of the Sun, artfully present Pat’s visit through reflections upon the glass of her visiting face almost superimposed over Harry’s, as if she’s living full-time in his head, as well as surrealism of bisected eyes and mouth behind the section of speaking slats, as the dawning horror of her words (she’s met someone, she’s pregnant, she wants a divorce, he’ll be in at least 15 years, you know how I get, she says, the words ringing in his head) cause him to smash his fist through the glass and grab her by the throat, screws and Birdy hauling him off to cool his heels in solitary, screaming silently in straightjacketed impotent rage. A Bill Sikes for the Seventies.
Harry and Birdy conspire to escape with the co-operation of the brains behind bars, Freddie Jones’ MacNeil, who’s paid off the head screw and has access to the gates to the outer yard. The night time prison escape is a thrilling, tense affair, the wing illuminated by lightning as Harry uses those Chekhov’s pipes to swing down on the guards performing a turn-over of the cell. The guard dog seems to be unaccounted for until Harry enters a guards hut to collect the stashed rope and rubber piping for handgrips, the dog leaping at him until Birdy has to smash its brains in with a brick. The three men climb scaffolding and swing the rope with a grappling hook across to the outer wall and shuffle across. All seems well until the stonework suddenly and explosively breaks away and Harry, the last man, swings back, having to launch himself pendulously to the waiting men on the wall. Stuntwork here is seamlessly integrated with principles close-ups – no wonder, the editor was John Glen, a veteran of the James Bond series. Reed was a natural athlete and probably wanted to do the rope swing himself. He is clearly seen hanging from the walls at several points.
Once out, the men split up, not without dropping each other potentially in it. Harry and Birdy stick together, for our little Birdy has been singing a different song in both Harry and Pat’s ears… Harry has a large stash of cash, and means to collect it, kill Pat (who Birdy slyly suggests also betrayed them to the law) and then, who knows? Tomorrow never happens, remember? The men have never gone in for shooters, but Harry now has a gunsmith pick him up a “broomhandle” semi-automatic Mauser with telescopic sight, almost a co-star in its own right. Birdy urges caution, but he is subtly inveigling himself to stay by Harry’s side until the time is right. Pat is supposedly under police protection in her upper story tower block flat, an underused Edward Woodward’s Inspector Milton in charge.
The film’s locations and cinematography convey a sense of London to rival the Village pads and tenements of any New York crime drama. From its already gentrifying Mews houses – they stop off at villain Marty Gold’s (Frank Finlay) love nest, all mirrors (shades of Enter the Dragon, The Lady From Shanghai), shag pile and bubble bath – to its sprawling modern estates and snaking railway tracks with dusty termini and greasy windows in sickly sunshine. Hickox often shoots and zooms on a long lens, taking in the action convincingly amongst the environs. Reed and Woodward throw themselves dangerously around the communal balcony outside Pat’s flat, no safety wires or mat in sight, before Harry legs it, to what then follows is an incredible sequence in the courtyard as Harry ducks, rolls and evades motorcycle cops through the billowing laundry hanging on multiple washing lines, avant-garde music pulsing alongside diegetic police radios and scuffling feet and tires. The score incidentally is by Stanley Myers, funky and mellow with aforesaid occasional electronic breaks. It was never released until much later and now fetches a hefty price tag through record label Finders Keepers. Myers is best known for his guitar piece Cavatina, used as the theme for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Harry blows the cops away, one bike exploding in flames and engulfing the sheets, an obscuring smoke-filled escape route to Birdy in a van. One wonders if Michael Cimino, who revised the John Milius script for Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, was aware of the on-foot protagonist hunted by motorbike cops scene, and adapted it for the climax of that film a year later?
An exciting double cross and motorized pursuit through pedestrianized precincts, back roads and docklands follow, Battersea power station looming menacingly in the background as Harry exacts futile revenge and cradles his wife amidst a conflagration of doomed despair. “I don’t want gratuitous action in my film,” Hickox told Film Illustrated on the set at the time. “I want the action to hit the audience fast. I don’t want to show people dying in slow motion because I think that sort of thing slows up the action.” Relentless, in your face, a full-throttle thrill ride. Give Sitting Target an urgent viewing today. After all, “tomorrow never happens.”
Stanley Myers - Main Theme from Sitting Target