Sitting Target is one of those movies I would catch on TV growing up as a kid. I’d stop what I was doing and change my plans to watch it. An admittedly adult film, I felt like I was getting away with something by watching it. I wish more people knew of this 1972 movie, as it is one of the greatest gritty revenge films of all time.
The plot is simple, but with an interesting twist. Oliver Reed’s character is in prison. His wife visits him to tell him that she wants a divorce and is pregnant by another man. So starts his twisted plan. He loses his mind over this revelation and decides to break out of prison for the sole purpose of killing his wife and her lover (and unborn child).
This is a tour de force for Oliver Reed. He is a barrel-chested alcoholic, deep-voiced everyman, and in this film, a seething sociopath. Reed spends the film obsessed and simmering, you can’t take your eyes off of him because you know he is about to erupt at any moment. I love hearing him bellow lines like, “You bloody bastard!” or “You conniving bitch!” in full rage.
This was probably the first film that introduced me to the anti-hero. Where the main character has amoral motivations and isn’t a particularly likeable person. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to follow the story of this man’s revenge quest to murder a pregnant woman, but somehow it works.
Oliver Reed plays Harry Lomart and his cell-mate Birdy is played by Ian McShayne. He has been a great actor for many decades that most of us know recently from his portrayal of Al Swearengen on Deadwood. The unfaithful wife is played by Jill St. John, and the detective that tries to keep her safe is played by Edward Woodward. Both are perfectly adequate for their relatively small roles.
I love that this movie pulls no punches and doesn’t hold back at all. It defines gritty 70’s revenge cinema. There is no comic relief, no cheesy songs, and no tonal changes. It is a simple tale told economically and filmed using some very creative and unusual methods. It revels in its darkness and nihilism. This film came out 2 years before Death Wish, and one year after Get Carter. I honestly think this film is far better than Get Carter, but because they were both British productions released around the same time, often this movie gets compared to that Mike Hodges movie starring Michael Caine.
The music was done by Stanley Myers and is perfect. The soundtrack is unusual and a bit jarring, which fits the theme of the film.
The direction by Douglas Hickox is inventive and deftly done. Lots of interesting framing and camera angles, including use of the split diopter lens. This makes the object in the foreground and background sharp and in focus, while the objects in between them are blurry. Brian DePalma adopted this and used it heavily later on. For the introductory scene where the wife visits Harry in prison to give him the bad news, the director had a challenging scene. How do you make a scene of two people talking through a window interesting? Rather than the typical A-B shot back and forth repeatedly, Hickox made a truly fascinating scene. He used extreme close-ups on their eyes and faces and set up reflections in a unique way. He used the shadows from the slats in the talking window to a film noir effect, bisecting their faces and sometimes obscuring their mouths. Or he would align the reflection in such a way that one character’s profile appeared directly in front of the others facing the same direction. It’s a truly inventive scene that gets your attention. A lesser director would’ve filmed this straight and boring. There is another scene with multi-panel mirrors that Brian DePalma famously copied in Scarface with the character reflected (or split) into multiple images. Symbolic of the fractured mind and soul, I imagine, but also just a damned great image.
The prison escape is tense, brutal, and exciting. Once Harry and Birdy break out, he acquires a Mauser and starts tracking down his wife. Gun aficionados love this gun. It’s a 9mm automatic handgun attached to a removable rifle stock, also called the ‘broomhandle’.
My favorite scene is a chase with two motorcycle cops following Harry through a bunch of laundry drying lines. Everyone is obscured by the flowing white sheets and clothes hanging from the various lines, and they hunt each other in the surreal sea of fabric. Instead of dramatic movie music, the director just ramped up the police radio chatter and the bizarre police sirens to create a dreamlike scene that, of course, ends in violence and death.
The film builds to a great conclusion that I felt was perfect. Nihilistic and brutal, you won’t soon forget it. The lighting, the editing, and the slow-motion would make Sam Peckinpah proud. (Also the end scene has the famous London Battersea powerstation smokestacks that Pink Floyd used for the cover of their 1977 album ‘Animals’.) If you are willing to go down this seedy road of the London underground with Oliver Reed, it’s well worth your time. Honor among thieves. The beatings, gunplay, chases, and overall darkness make for an excellent jailbreak/revenge thriller.
This line of dialogue sums up the film beautifully, “The spirit is weak, Harry. The flesh even weaker.”