Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Let Him Have It (1991)


I was much further out than you thought

 And not waving but drowning.

—Stevie Smith

In 1953, in London, England, a young man named Derek Bentley was hanged for the crime of being an accomplice in the murder of a policeman. Bentley had an IQ pf 66 and a mental age of 11. His death sentence was biased not on what he did (the actual shooting was done by his 16-year-old partner, Chris Craig), but on five ambiguous words he uttered ten minutes before PC Miles was gunned down: “Let him have it, Chris!” To the officers who later quoted those words at the trial, they meant, “Shoot him, Chris!” and proved Derek to be the instigator of the fatal 20-minute shoot-out which followed. This despite the fact that Derek himself carried no gun and made no attempt to resist arrest. For Derek’s family and their many supporters, those same words meant “Let the officer have the gun, Chris!” A terrible ambiguity on which to weigh a life. It is unlikely that Derek Bentley himself ever fully understood the tragedy in which he played the central role. Until their deaths in the ‘70s, his parents sought to correct what they saw as a horrible miscarriage of justice; Bentley’s sister, Iris, carries on their struggle to this day. The case almost certainly contributed to Britain’s eventual abolition of the death penalty.

Derek Bentley’s story is retold in Let Him Have It (1991), a superbly-crafted, moving film by Peter Medak. Let Him Have It is not simply an attack on the British justice system or the idea of capital punishment. This despite the fact that its courtroom scenes are unflattering, the hanging is quick and brutal, and the young man who dies is executed by a system that cannot distinguish criminal intent from an inability to choose one’s friends. Unlike another excellent, fact-based crime film, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (which actually resulted in the retrial and exoneration of a man wrongly imprisoned for killing a Dallas policeman in 1976), Peter Medak’s main focus is on the characters rather than the case. We are not so much outraged by injustice as we are touched by the love and affection within Derek’s family. The strongest scenes in this film are the gentlest ones; particularly those between Derek (Christopher Eccleston) and his sister (Clare Holman) and parents (Tom Courtenay & Eileen Atkins). We can even empathize with Chris Craig’s (Paul Reynolds) desperate desire to replace his nonexistent family and social life with the inflated bravado of American movie gangsters and his own, largely impotent, criminal “gang.” Medak gets excellent performances both from veteran actors Courtney and Atkins, and newcomers Eccleston, Holman, and Reynolds.

Take away the courtroom scenes at the end, take away Derek’s family’s desperate race against death through the media, the Judiciary, and the British Parliament, and Let Him Have It would still stand as a film worth watching solely for its affecting portrait of a family struggling to encourage one member’s escape from a debilitating, self-imposed isolation, while simultaneously shielding him from dangers he cannot see or comprehend. As much as Derek’s execution may move us to anger, the greater tragedy is that of a loving family’s inability to protect its most vulnerable member. Love is not always enough. Watching this movie reminded me of the title of a recent novel by Canadian writer David Adams Richards: For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. Every society has its share of the wounded and vulnerable; every society has its share of the hunters. These days, masked under rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, corporate downsizing, global competitiveness, self-reliance, free markets, and reduced government, the hunters have become bolder.

Let Him Have It is also a fine lesson on the good old days that never were. For those who remember only schools that taught the basics and within which violence and anti-social behavior were non-issues, Medak gives us a classroom scene from 1952 where the favorite activity when the headmaster’s not around is trading handguns, ammunition, and black-market rationing coupons. Nor is the headmaster particularly surprised when he discovers what is going on. One of the less heroic legacies of the Second World War must have been an incredible surfeit of arms. Unemployment, easy access to guns, a lucrative smuggling trade, media which sensationalized the lives of anti-social outlaws: I’m describing post-war Britain, but is there something familiar about this picture? The Lone Ranger may have lived in the thrilling days of yesteryear, Derek Bentley and his family did not.

As almost invariably seems to be the case with British films, the period detail is superb. No one recreates history on screen better than the Brits. I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again. It’s not a question of just finding the right hairstyles, clothes, cars, knickknacks, etc. The trick is putting it all together so that the final result doesn’t look like a newly-minted museum showcase. Thanks to the work of marvelously-trained art directors, cinematographers, and production & costume designers, British film sets look as if the actors had spent their lives in them. Someone should just give the entire British film industry a Lifetime Achievement Award for opening the past to us in ways that no one else has.

A final note for those who enjoy British cinema. I’d like to recommend two other films which involved various members of the production team which was responsible for Let Him Have It. The first is The Krays (1990), Peter Medak’s portrait of the twin brothers who ran London’s underworld during the 60’s. The second is the black comedy Withnail & I (1987), also set in the 60’s, and as lethal as The Krays.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

This is another of the films that I reviewed over 20 years ago that I seem to have forgotten completely.  But on a second viewing it continues to work for me on at least two levels.  Like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), Let Him Have It reaffirms the ability of the cinema to help restore justice where it may have been denied.  Medak’s film was one more step in Derek’s family 45-year campaign to overturn his murder conviction.  It was a quest for justice that outlived his parents, and his sister, Iris, finally ending when Iris’s daughter Maria, born 10 years after Derek’s execution, saw the Court of Appeals quash the conviction in July of 1998.  For all of the exposure we’ve had to Hatfield-McCoy-style intergenerational feuds in popular media, how many intergenerational quests for justice have we seen?  The Bentley family’s undying love for their doomed son/brother/uncle is worth a film in its own right.  Theirs is the power of faith in its purest manifestation, a crusade that uplifts rather than horrifies.

The movie also continues to work as yet another example of flawless British period filmmaking, with superb acting and utterly convincing production design (Michael Pickwoad) and costume design (Pam Tait).  The long street of red brick row houses on which the Bengley’s live is one of the film’s most memorable images, capturing both a sense of order and a sense of straightened lives.  Michael Pickwoad, who died this year (2018), went on to work on 62 episodes of Doctor Who and dozens of other films & TV shows.  Tait’s first screen credit was as assistant costume designer for Sid and Nancy (1986).  I was also impressed by Michael Kamen’s low-keyed musical score, much different from the work he’d later do on Hollywood blockbusters such as the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films.  Kamen probably had one of the most eclectic resumes of any major film composer—including co-writing songs with Bryan Adams!  Director Peter Medak, who made his first film in 1965, has had a career that now spans more than half a century.  Christopher Eccleston has had a fine career as an actor, including 13 appearances as Doctor Who.  Most of Clare Holman’s work has been on television, principally as Dr. Laura Hobson in 42 episodes of Inspector Lewis.  Tom Courtenay’s career now spans six decades, with two Oscar nominations.  Eileen Atkins has 98 acting credits on the Imdb, including 31 appearances as Ruth Ellingham in the Doc Martin TV series.

The story of Christopher Craig, who was 16 when he was convicted along with Derek Bentley, makes for an object lesson in the dangerously seductive power of cinema.  For an illiterate, unemployed young man in early 1950s London, a steady diet of American gangster films like James Cagney’s White Heat wasn’t exactly a stabilizing influence.  For Craig, a movie such Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) would have been an inspiration rather than an object lesson.  Craig was released after 10 years in prison, married shortly thereafter, and became a plumber.  He issued a statement when Bentley’s pardon was granted, and apologized to both Bentley’s family and the family of PC Miles for his actions.

Sometimes we lose track of how far we’ve come.  As of 2018, 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium on its use.  A mere four countries accounted for 84% of official executions in 2017.  As graphically shown in Let Him Have It, it would now be inconceivable that the draft board of a Western nation would insist on “verifying” a young person’s medical condition by artificially inducing epilepsy.  It’s unbelievable that even the recent horrors of the Second World War didn’t serve to put an immediate stop to the casual cruelties inflicted by societies on some of their most vulnerable citizens.

Out here in British Columbia, we have our own powerful story of crime and redemption, one which has been written down and commented upon, and even put on film in the form of a CBC documentary, The Poet and the Bandit (1999) and an NFB documentary, Inside Time (2007).  Stephen Reid, who died in 2018, and who went from youthful bank robber to respected author and then back to bank robber, had been eloquent in trying to come to terms with the roller coaster life he’d led.  That he was able to write his own story earned him praise from some quarters, and outrage from others.  He married poet Susan Musgrave while serving his first prison term in 1986, started a family and a career as a writer, and then was sentenced to a second, 18-year prison term in 1999.  Musgrave stood by him during all that time.  Reid died a month before he and Musgrave were scheduled to appear together at Nelson, B.C.’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.

Movie Information

Genre: True Crime
Director: Peter Medak
Actors: Christopher Eccleston, Paul Reynolds, Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins, Clare Holman
Year: 1991
Original Review: September 1996


366 Weird Movies


The title says it all.  Everything from Alice (1988, “Ultra-creepy Czech stop-motion animated version of the Lewis Carroll classic, shot in eerie stop-animation in a decaying house”) to Vixen Highway 2006 (2010, “2 1/2 hour (!) low-budget b-movie pastiche about an escaped girl gang and a rock star who makes a Faustian deal with an alien, or something like that”).  Good commentaries on individual films, and links to over 30 other Cult/Weird movie sites.  A fine mix of the obscure (Funky Forest: The First Contact, Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell) and the outstanding (Belle de Jour, The Exterminating Angel).


Stanley Kubrick:  The Lost Tapes


From the site sponsors:  “A short [25-minute] documentary about the early life and feature films of the great Stanley Kubrick, as narrated by himself. The narration was pulled from interviews that took place in 1966 with Jeremy Bernstein. Bernstein was writing a profile on the director and used these recordings as a chance to gather information. As it turns out the tapes themselves were a rare and incredibly interesting insight into the mind of Kubrick. Its also a glimpse at the director before his “masterpieces” such as ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Shining’ had been made.”  A very frank, concise self-portrait of Kubrick’s creative development from his early work with photography to his involvement with Arthur C. Clark and the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Very effective use of still photographs and footage from the early Kubrick films.

Films Worth Talking About:

Poison, Delicatessen, Naked Lunch, Hook, Paris is Burning, Prospero’s Books, The Silence of the Lambs, Korczak, The Grifters, Hamlet, L.A. Story, Merci la vie, The Company of Strangers, Barton Fink, Jacquot de Nantes, Thelma and Louise, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, King of New York, Toto the Hero, Boyz N the Hood, [Truly, Madly, Deeply], La Belle Noiseuse, Let Him Have It, Urga, My Own Private Idaho, J’entends plus la guitare, The Fisher King, Edward II, Van Gogh, Las Amants du Pont Neuf, IP5, Beauty and the Beast, Cape Fear, Yentl, JFK, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, The Doors, The Commitments, The Addams Family, In Bed with Madonna (Truth or Dare), Bugsy, For the Boys, Other People’s Money, Proof, City Slickers, The Adjuster, Raise the Red Lantern, Homicide, Impromptu.

The Bigger Picture

Films:  The Thin Blue Line (1988), The Krays (1990), Withnail & I (1987)




BooksLet Him Have It, Chris by M. J. Trow; Jackrabbit Parole & A Crowbar in a Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison, by Stephen Reid

The Word on the Street

“Christopher Eccleston is absolutely brilliant playing Bentley, and truly captures the inner torment and diffidence of a young man suffering from years of epilepsy and failure at school. Bentley is clearly not normal and probably more impressionable than most people of his age – this is the essence of this tragic story. He wants to be like everyone else but stupidly chooses the wrong people – or do they choose him?”  [frankiehudson]

That shoot out is interesting. Paul Reynolds does a fine job of projecting the exhilaration a feral kid can feel when his reptilian brain is unleashed, shooting wildly in the air, pinging bullets off his surroundings. The adrenalin rush doesn’t last long but while it does, you’re the monarch of all you survey. You — how do the firing range cadre put it? — you “command your environment.”

I’ll give an example of how this movie could have gone irretrievably wrong. It could have followed the model already established, and imitated many times, and given us an extremely detailed description of the preparation of the inmate for execution. See “Ted Bundy” for a beacon of meretriciousness. Instead, there are a few relevant scenes of Eccleston in the slams, mostly discussing his appeal with his family. The execution itself is over with in two minutes. No long parade to the gallows led by a pastor reading from the Bible. No lugubrious climbing of thirteen steps. No inquiry from the warden about any last words. No last words.  [rmax304823]

“Certainly in these more enlightened times it is unlikely given the strongly argued mental competence issue that [Bentely] would be charged with murder – I would expect a plea of diminished responsibility to be acceptable to the prosecution. But this was 1952,and I cannot emphasise enough the folly of considering events of the past through the sensibilities of the present. Derek Bentley may not have been very sharp, but he knew that warehousebreaking was a crime and he went out and did it anyway. He may well have been in thrall to Christopher Craig who was clearly the main instigator of the crime, but he wasn’t dragged up on that rooftop kicking and screaming. The only innocent victim here is PC Miles,  whose name no one seems to remember. He was just a middle-aged London copper trying to do his job and get home safely in the morning. Thanks to Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig he never made it.”  [ianlouisiana]

“The great irony of this case is that the Home Secretary was the successful chief British Prosecutor of the Nazi War Criminals in 1946 in Nuremburg but tarnished his reputation in a most disgraceful manner in the way he treated the semi-illiterate Derek Bentley who was made the condemned victim for his part in this crime because the real killer could not face the supreme penalty.”  [grafspee]