Once Upon A Time In London (2019)

Once Upon A Time In London first published by Sight & Sound, May 2019

Review: This time capsule of a nation’s (criminal) history is, as its title suggests, an English response to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984), and it is populated with characters who, both in the film and in real life, self-consciously modelled their style of clothes and even their street names on American gangsters. Yet it is also very much a Simon Rumley film. Rumley has recently departed from the outer margins of independent horror (The Living and the Dead, 2006; Red White & Blue, 2010; Fashionista, 2016) to become a chronicler of Englishness, with his Crowhurst (2017) and now Once Upon A Time In London using true stories from the past to explore the darker side of the nation’s psychic legacy. Rumley’s stock in trade is to let the edit tell half the story (much like Nic Roeg, the dedicatee of his last two features). Accordingly, even though his mythic spin on ganglords Jack ‘Spot’ Comer (co-writer and producer Terry Stone) and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory) may span two decades, Rumley’s use of cuts, elisions and rhythmic montage (here set regularly to contemporary songs) compresses the narrative time to half the length of Leone’s crime epic. Perhaps in keeping with the rationing that dominated much of the film’s timeline, this is lean, economic story telling – and although there is violence aplenty, Rumley knows when to cut away, focusing less on the vicious act than on its blood-stained aftermath. 

Rhythms and repetitions drive Once Upon A Time In London, making its linear narrative – from the 1936 Battle of Cable Street through the Second World War to the 1956 attack on Jack and his wife Rita (Nadia Forde) which led to his retirement from crime – also seem circular. For this is a right royal story of succession and usurpation, as a hard man vies aggressively to become King of the London Underworld, only to have his crown taken away by the next generation’s man who would be king. Much as Jack takes over the clubs and protection rackets from the Sabinis and the Whites reigning together before him, Jack too will be ousted by his one-time apprentice Billy – the UK’s first ‘celebrity’ gangster – who in turn sees the writing on his own wall as a pair of tough newcomers called the Krays start moving in/up. This endless alternation between rise and fall lends a futility to the power-hungry endeavours of all these hard men, who, despite their fondness for brutal beatings and slashings, are like schoolboys bickering over grapes (literally, in one funny scene).

Meanwhile the women around them – Billy’s wife Aggie (Holly Earl), his prostitute girlfriend Gypsy (Kate Braithwaite, first seen here in the same prone posture where Rumley left her at the end of ‘Bitch’, his segment in 2011’s anthology Little Deaths), Jack’s appetitive mistress Tiger Lilly (Shereen Guerlin Ball) and Rita – all prove adept at getting the best for themselves out of bad situations. It is a time-leaping take on the vanity of male ambition and of sovereignty itself, lightened with flashes of humour.

Synopsis: London, 1936. Jewish gangster Jack Comer is imprisoned for violent anti-fascist actions. Out six months later, he takes work as muscle for illegal club owner and racetrack racketeer Darky Mulley, and is now regarded as a threat to London’s dominant gang, co-ruled by Alfred White and Charles Sabini. When War breaks out, Sabini and his Italian crew are rounded up as state enemies. Jack is conscripted, but is declared mentally unfit after attacking his drill instructor. When Alfred White dies of a heart attack, his incompetent son Harry declares war on Jack. In the then biggest raid in British history, Jack steals ration coupons from the Romford Food Office, securing his reputation as King of London’s underworld. The War over, robber Billy Hill, fresh out of Wandsworth prison, asks if his crew can work for Jack’s expanding organisation. After Harry beats up Billy, the latter, helped by sadistic henchman Frankie Fraser, locates Harry’s hangout and slashes him. Billy’s wife Aggie learns that he has taken up with prostitute Gypsy, and asks if she can run a club herself. At that club, Jack falls for Rita, and marries her, even as his own fortunes decline. Meanwhile Billy, aided by journalist Duncan Webb and a daring Mailbag Robbery, builds a reputation. After various increasingly violent fallings-out between Jack and Billy, Jack retires with the pregnant Rita in 1956. Up and coming twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray ask Billy, now King, for work. 

© Anton Bitel