Moving Target

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Douglas Hickox’s 1972 crime film “Sitting Target” has had its up and downs. Like Harry Lomart swinging back-and-forth  on that rope during a daring prison break, it was ignored or dumped on as a new release and only with the passage of years has it managed to pick up its champions. I regard it as one-third of trio of truly fine noir crime films filmed in Britain during the 1970s (the others being Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter” and Michael Tuchner’s similarly under-rated “Villain”). Interestingly enough all three films take a professional criminal as their protagonist. While Michael Caine’s Jack Carter is strictly a lone wolf, Oliver Reed’s Harry Lomart and Richard Burton’s Vic Daykin both have partners–and both were played by Ian McShane.

The original ad campaigns for “Sitting Target” refer to Reed’s character as “an animal,” and his motivating drive–to murder his faithless wife–is hardly designed to endear him to audiences. Lomart is burly, surly and a man of few words, while McShane’s “Birdie” Williams is a chatty charmer. But Hickox and screenwriter Arthur Jacobs drop little hints throughout that McShane is the really dangerous one, whose surface charm masks a nasty streak of sadism.

All of this builds to an extraordinary climax. Williams has betrayed Lomart (and is, in fact, the lover of his wife) and the whole prison-break was an exercise to get Lomart to lead them to 200,000 pounds, stashed away by Lomart after a job that he and Williams pulled before prison. Now everything seems resolved in the best Seventies action-movie tradition. The faithless wife has been killed in a car crash, the fleeing Williams has been gunned down by Lomart. As the stone-faced Lomart walks off, with Stanley Myers droning, vaguely threatening theme playing in the background, we’re all ready for a fade-out. Instead Lomart returns to the crashed car, climbs in next to his dead wife, kisses her tenderly and caresses her as the car bursts into flames.

It would appear that for all of his bluster and threats to kill, he in fact loved his wife Pat dearly. So much so that he choses to die with her. Apparently Harry wasn’t as much of an animal as advertised.

The film boasted some good supporting turns by Edward Woodward as the well-meaning, but in the end inept Inspector Milton hot on Harry’s and Birdie’s increasingly violent trail, Freddie Francis as a prison fixer and Frank Finlay as Marty Gold, a double-dealing gang boss whose attempt to shop the boys to Milton ends badly. Jill St. John playing the object of Harry’s love/hate thankfully did not attempt a British working-class accent, leaving one to wonder how this gorgeous redhead first made the acquaintance of the sullen, brutish Lomart.

Finally “Sitting Target” made its small contribution to the motion picture arms race. While Jack Carter favored a shotgun once owned by his murdered brother, and Vic Daykin liked cut-throat razors, Harry Lomart is kitted out with a pre-World War I Mauser automatic pistol, complete with detachable shoulder stock, telescopic sight and enlarged ammo clip. (Around the same time, Don Stroud sported a similar sidearm in the Clint Eastwood western, “Joe Kidd.”)

Some critics term these British crime films “unpleasant.” Far from being a derogatory term, I take that as a compliment. These films don’t romanticize their villains. If they aren’t cinema-verite, neither are they Hollywood fluff-balls.

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