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A heist movie with an unexpected twist, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) presents us with a gang of professional thieves who are not driven solely by greed. They're embittered IRA members who need money to help fund their terrorist activities, and what better way to aid their cause than to steal from their wealthy enemies? Set in 1901, the film follows Norgate (Aldo Ray) and his partners as they meticulously research and plan their daring robbery. In fact, their preparation is just as suspenseful as the final ironic payoff involving a homeless derelict and an underground tunnel that runs just beneath the bank's gold bullion stronghold.
In spite of a modest production budget, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a briskly directed thriller that aptly captures the look and feel of the era in which it takes place. More significantly, the film was important for launching the film career of Peter O'Toole, who appears in a key supporting role; he plays a bank guard whom Norgate befriends at the local pub, and later becomes the gang's chief nemesis. O'Toole had only appeared in minor roles in two other films before this (The Savage Innocents and Kidnapped, both in 1960) and was better known as a stage actor in London.
During of the filming of The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, O'Toole was a familiar figure in the Stratford neighborhood where he often performed. According to author Michael Freedland in his biography Peter O'Toole, the actor liked to have fun, "mostly settled around the favourite Stratford 'local,' the Dirty Duck. Ben Shepherd, the landlord, was, he said, 'the patron saint of us all.' Situated down by the river it was everyone's most popular haunt. For more than a year Peter held the Dirty Duck's speed record for consuming the yard of ale - forty seconds....As Peter once said: 'People treat Stratford as a place for pilgrimage, like Lourdes or Bethlehem. But there's nothing else to do there except drink. The locals detest the actors." Considering O'Toole's later health problems that were attributed to alcoholism, this period in his life obviously set a barroom standard for his future offscreen behavior.
Ironically, it was his performance in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and not his acclaimed stage work in Shakespeare plays like The Taming of the Shrew that convinced director David Lean to cast O'Toole as the lead in his historical epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Of course, O'Toole became internationally famous after the release of that film, but The Day They Robbed the Bank of England provides a fascinating glimpse of the young actor's natural and unaffected acting style before he began specializing in larger-than-life roles (Becket, 1964; The Lion in Winter, 1968).
Producer: Jules Buck
Director: John Guillermin
Screenplay: Howard Clewes, Richard Maibaum
Art Direction: Peggy Gick, Scott MacGregor
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Editing: Frank Clarke
Music: Edwin T. Astley
Principal Cast: Aldo Ray (Norgate), Elizabeth Sellars (Iris Muldoon), Hugh Griffith (O'Shea), Peter O'Toole (Fitch), Kieron Moore (Walsh), Albert Sharpe (Tosher), John Le Mesurier (Green), Joseph Tomelty (Cohoun), Miles Malleson (Assistant Curator), Andrew Keir (Sergeant of the Guard).
BW-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford