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The Safecracker (1958) opens on a note of mystery. A military document removed from official files, a stamp releasing the previously classified document, and a comment from the officer: "So they decided to let this out of the bag." Rewind to London, 1938, where Ray Milland breaks into an estate with relative ease, defeating the alarm and cracking the safe by touch. The audience on hand doesn't phase him. In fact, it's part of the plan. Colley Dawson (Milland) is a professional locksmith who builds impregnable safes, but he gets a bigger charge out of his salesmanship technique: proving the inferiority of the competition by playing cat burglar.
The first half of the film charts the rise and fall of his brilliant career, robbing treasures from the London clients of an antiques dealer (Barry Jones) with a black market sideline and living it up in a double life. During the week he lives in a dowdy apartment with his aging mum but come the weekend he's a high-living society blade spending his ill-gotten gains between jobs. His criminal career is ended long before the film is and the second half picks up in the midst of World War II. A special assignment behind enemy lines calls for the very expert skills wielded by Colley, the best safecracker behind bars, and the mission commander (Ernest Clark) reluctantly drafts Colley into his unit.
British born Ray Milland had a thriving Hollywood career through the forties and fifties, thanks to his mix of class, dignity and everyman geniality; he starred in well over a hundred films in his career, but he also had a second career as a director. This low-budget British production, made for MGM in 1958, was the third of his five directorial features. One wonders if Milland agreed to direct in exchange for taking the lead, for he is somewhat miscast in the role of a restless, ambitious guy with a special gift and a yearning for the better things in life (he spends his Sundays staring at the treasures of the British Museum). As played by Milland, Colley becomes a fifty-something angry young man still living at home and toiling unhappily as a hired hand for the better part of his life.
As a director, Milland doesn't bring much style or tension to the film. The Safecracker skips over most of the robberies and the script is short on the kind of physical detail that defines most heist films. Colley's technique comes down to brazen audacity; in one instance, he robs a bedroom safe while the owner snores away in his bed a few feet away. Milland's smiling confidence carries the scenes and defines the character of Colley: it's not just the money that turns him into a safecracker, it's the thrill of the job. When Scotland Yard starts sniffing around his double life, Colley turns it into a challenge to pull off a job right under their noses. That kind of audacity is just what this mission calls for. While he's not much of a soldier, even after a crash course in basic training (played for light humor as Milland quips his way through obstacle courses and paratrooper jumps), he's in his element when it comes to breaking into a villa in occupied Belgium commandeered by the Nazi military. And as the men slowly warm to and eventually accept this sardonic new member of the unit, he returns the favor by giving them tips on breaking and entering like a pro.
Barry Jones, who plays the crooked antique dealer that becomes Colley's partner in crime, was a busy character actor specializing in authority figures and powerful men (including the Emperor Claudius in the American costume drama Demetrius and the Gladiator, 1954); he brings dry humor, confidence and a sly arrogance to his role here. Ernest Clark was no stranger to playing military men when he took the role of the mission commander but he found fame years later playing the crusty Sir Geoffrey Loftus in the long-running Doctor in the House TV series and its subsequent incarnations. Character actor Bernard Fox (who made a career playing offbeat Brits on American TV, notably the eccentric Dr. Bombay on Bewitched) has a few lines as one of the soldiers in the special unit and Thomson, the talkative soldier, is played by Ian MacNaughton, who later made his fame directing every episode of the cult comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Producer: David E. Rose, John R. Sloan (producer)
Director: Ray Milland
Screenplay: Paul Monash (writer); Lt. Colonel Rhys Davies, Bruce Thomas (story)
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Film Editing: Ernest Walter
Cast: Ray Milland (Colley Dawson), Barry Jones (Bennett Carfield), Jeanette Sterke (Irene), Victor Maddern (Morris), Ernest Clark (Major Adbury), Cyril Raymond (Inspector Frankham), Melissa Stribling (Angela), Percy Herbert (Sergeant Harper), Barbara Everest (Mrs. Dawson), Anthony Nicholls (General Prior).
by Sean Axmaker