Sitting Target

Sitting Target

It’s always something of a mystery when some vintage British crime pictures attain a hallowed status in the film pantheon where other, equally good movies, languish in obscurity. You’ll hear no argument from this quarter about the classic status of Get Carter or The Long Good Friday but what about the likes of Villain, The Black Windmill, Fear is the Key or A Prize of Arms? In fact I’ll go one further, now I’ve finally caught up with it, and add another great film to that list of overlooked gems: Sitting Target.

Made during Ollie Reed’s early 70s period that saw him zig-zagging between high art fare for Ken Russell and more box office friendly swashbuckling roles, this is a fabulously stripped down study of a career criminal whose bloodlust is raised and cannot be sated no matter the obstacles in his way.

He plays a career criminal currently on remand who’s facing an inevitable extra fifteen years in stir. His behaviour inside has been far from exemplary and when his visiting wife tells him she wants a divorce and is carrying another man’s child so great is his anger he smashes through the separating window and tries to throttle her. Chances of an early parole? As close to nil as makes no difference.

Fear not though for what unfolds over the next twenty minutes is a peerless jailbreak sequence that will have have you on the edge of your seat. Along with fellow inmates Freddie Jones and Ian McShane, Reed in turn charms, bludgens and Tarzan-style swings his way to freedom but rather than make haste to the continent and a new life abroad he heads to London where his wife, the sitting target of the title, awaits his vengeance.

Sitting Target

There are certainly some shortcomings to Sitting Target, notably the underuse of both Edward Woodward and Jill St John (whose voice seems dubbed it’s so devoid of feeling). But the film makes excellent use of at least three set pieces: the aforementioned jailbreak; a terrifying rooftop fight between Reed and Woodward and a quite bizarre cat and mouse chase between the protagonist and two police motorcycles through a yard obscured by hanging laundry.

Moreover it settles into a thoughtful second act that plays out a rather tender bromance between Reed and McShane as well as delving into the motivations and inner turmoil the former is experiencing throughout, and it’s over the course of this period that we begin to see he is a good deal more than the ‘animal’ he is described as by the police, his fellow criminals and indeed the official poster for the film itself.

Sitting Target captures a London that is slowly being forgotten, a time when Clapham and Battersea (the final scene is backdropped by the famous power station) were ugly and dangerous neighbourhoods and the presence of a gun in the hands of a determined criminal was considered big news so it’s a pity this film is so difficult to see though it does pop up from time to time on TCM and is available from the ever growing Warner Archive burn-to-order service.

Sitting Target – directed by Douglas Hickox (1972)

In Short
Ollie Reed is inside for 15 years but finds his wife has been cheating on him and wants a divorce so hw busts out with one thought on his mind…murder.
Trailer here