I first saw The Debt Collector in 2001 on television, a couple of years after its 1999 release. Re-watching it recently I was reminded of what compelling viewing it is, and at the same time how brutally violent it is in certain scenes – one early scene involving Iain Robertson as the character Flipper and Julie Wilson Nimmo in a minor role still made me flinch on second viewing 12 years later.
The film opens in the 1970s with Ken Stott’s detective Gary Keltie capturing Billy Connolly’s murderous “debt collector” Nickie Dryden for his crimes. We then fast forward to 1999, where a reformed and released Dryden is now a respected artist married to journalist Val, played by Francesca Annis. Keltie is disgusted at the sight of Dryden in this perfect world – glittering receptions, book festival appearances, attractive wife – while he struggles to make ends meet and lives with his dementia suffering mother (Annette Crosbie). It becomes his mission to humiliate Dryden at every opportunity and the detective becomes more and more obsessed to a disturbing extent. Dryden attempts to retain composure but this becomes increasingly difficult, and even more so when Flipper enters the equation. A troubled and violent young man, he regards the Dryden of old as an idol and when his hero shuns him he takes measures that create a devastating chain of events for all of the main characters.
The acting in The Debt Collector is excellent – beardless Connolly is in arguably one of his most serious roles, and certainly a million miles from cheerful anecdotes on Parkinson. Teenaged Robertson presents us with a character that is both menacing and pathetic, and Annis gives a powerful performance as Val’s rather pleasant lifestyle begins to crumble. Stott meanwhile is remarkable as the obsessed detective – while one feels pity for him at times, it’s hard not to see him as somewhat hateful at points and even feel sympathy for Dryden as a result. In addition to the sterling leading performances it is also good to see a real who’s who of famous Scots – including the aforementioned Wilson Nimmo and Crosbie, Ford Kiernan, Ronni Ancona, Jimmy Logan and Una McLean – play parts in this first class film.
It’s yet another film in which Glasgow stands in for Edinburgh in a number of scenes and it’s tempting to ask why this feature couldn’t simply have been set in the Dear Green Place, however a climax at the castle with the sounds of the Tattoo in the background makes the capital setting worth it. Among the Glasgow locations noticeable in The Debt Collector are Linn Crematorium and the Mitchell Theatre, whose facade portrays that of an art gallery housing Dryden’s exhibition.