It goes without saying that cinema has a long established obsession with the world of organised crime. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, and that’s just the ones that spring to mind, there are countless others. There has, of course, been equally a spotlight on the crime lords of London of years gone by. Legend, starring Tom Hardy, covered in-depth the life and times of the infamous Kray Twins. Peaky Blinders has dealt with the post-war power struggles of rival gangs, both in the Midlands and in London. So to say that the subject matter of Once Upon a Time in London is well trodden would seem a pretty reliable statement, and yet in a sense it does tell a story many are unlikely to be familiar with.
Once Upon a Time in London follows the rise to prominence of infamous gangsters Jack “Spot” Comer and Billy Hill. Before The Krays, before The Richardson gang, there was Spot and there was Hill. Although both men had vastly different backgrounds, they shared a common desire to ascend to the top of the underworld. Spot from a Jewish family in the East End, and Hill from North London. However, as the two work together and get closer over the years things get tense and a fierce rivalry is born.
The first thing to note about Once Upon a Time in London is the level of violence. This is not a film for the faint of heart. That said, the violence isn’t sensationalised or glamourised, it just exists as though it were an everyday activity which actually works surprisingly well in setting the scene for the culture that surrounded the circles Hill and Comer operated within. It’s a tactic that underlines the way both men interact with the world around them, but it is also incredibly jarring for the first third of the film, which undercuts the effectiveness of the violence as a framing device in the other two thirds.
The acting performances in Once Upon a Time in London are something of a mixed bag. Leo Gregory is very good as Hill, bringing a swagger and slippery charm to proceedings. Terry Stone is mostly excellent as Comer, although there are points where he slips into something resembling a parody of an East End gangster, only for a moment here and there, but long enough for it drag down his performance overall. In supporting roles, Justin Salinger (who was excellent in Simon Rumley’s last film Crowhurst) shines as Harry White, while Jamie Foreman channels his enthusiasm and energy into a memorable performance as Alf White. However, the best supporting performance comes from Roland Manookian (whose most memorable previous role was Zebedee in The Football Factory in 2004) as “Mad” Frankie Fraser. Manookian does a great job of displaying a sadistic menace, but also an ice cold exterior while taking on some of the more prominent characteristics that made Fraser such a recognisable character.
Once Upon a Time in London is not without its problems. The story is strong, but the pacing and structure don’t quite work initially. With Hill and Comer’s individual rises to the point where they become acquaintances intercut, the first part of the film feels like a series of vignettes sewn together without a clear connection. Once the two are in contact via Hill’s letter to Comer, things take a much more defined shape, but I can’t help think the preamble in getting to that stage really slows everything down, and stops the true meat of the story, the fascinating dynamic between the partners and later rivals from coming to the fore at right from the outset. Visually, it’s really striking, with a very convincing aesthetic and some beautifully framed sequences, but the structural issues really undermine the visual aspect.
] Once Upon a Time in London is an enjoyable gangster drama in the rich tradition of the genre. It has issues, with the first half an hour especially. However, once things get going properly there are some bloody, violent and engrossing performances and a genuinely intriguing story. Before there were The Krays there was Jack Spot and Billy Hill, and it’s really interesting to see the focus shifted to two equally important, but perhaps lesser spotted pillars in the history of London’s criminal underworld.