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Here's proof that an exciting, entertaining heist movie doesn't have to depend on modern high-tech wizardry on the part of either the filmmakers or the characters in the story. Set in Victorian England, the charming band of thieves in Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery (1979) pull off the Big Job using nothing more technologically advanced than wax impressions of keys, ingenious disguises - even a dead cat. And for the thrilling climax, ace cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (It was his last feature) filmed star Sean Connery on top of a speeding train barely escaping decapitation as he ducks under low bridges with no stunt double, back projection or the computer-generated effects we're used to today.
Crichton, of course, is the man behind such blockbusters as Westworld (1973), Coma (1978), Jurassic Park (1993) and Twister (1996), so he knows a thing or two about putting audiences at the edge of their seats. He adapted the screenplay for The Great Train Robbery from his novel, based on the real-life 1855 theft of a shipment of gold bound for the Crimean War. The heist has become legendary among the British, who lay claim to it as history's first robbery from a moving train. In fact, in the U.K. the film was released as The First Great Train Robbery, perhaps to distinguish it from Edwin S. Porter's identically titled 1903 silent movie, usually considered the first full-scale Western on the American screen.
Connery made this picture eight years after swearing off the James Bond series with Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and four years before returning to the franchise that made him world famous in his last shot as 007, the aptly titled Never Say Never Again (1983). Here as clever, endlessly resourceful gentleman thief Edwin Pierce, he departs from the role that almost typecast him forever while showcasing the qualities that made him such a hit as the master spy: a dashing, danger-loving virility tempered by a sardonic humor that lets audiences in on the joke. There's even a hint of Bond's smooth ladies man image in Pierce's relationship with his mistress (Lesley-Ann Down, who rose to prominence in the popular TV series Upstairs, Downstairs). As the spirited Miriam, Down is almost a Bond Girl in Bustles a beautiful woman who can hold her own as an accomplice in the bold and risky theft.
Of course, no heist story is complete without the near-obligatory henchmen, master criminals of singular skill and charming quirkiness like safecracker Agar (Donald Sutherland) and cat burglar Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep). A master of intricate plotting, Crichton follows the four thieves through the planning of the minutest details of the elaborate scheme, creating suspense with the unexpected and seemingly unbeatable difficulties thrown in their path. The script earned Crichton a 1980 Edgar Allen Poe Best Picture Award from the Mystery Writers of America. But in adapting his novel, he expanded its scope beyond the basic heist plot to give audiences both a healthy dose of comedy and rich period detail. The most expensive film Crichton had directed to date, nearly 10 percent of the budget went to a single set, a 19th century recreation of London's Strand down to the cobblestone street, ale houses and that pinnacle of British Empire opulence and folly, Queen Victoria's Crystal Palace.
Art Direction:Bert Davey
Principle Cast:Sean Connery (Edward Pierce), Donald Sutherland (Agar), Lesley-Anne Down (Miriam), Alan Webb (Edgar Trent), Malcom Terris (Henry Fowler), Robert Lang (Inspector Sharp), Michael Elphick (Burgess), Wayne Sleep (Clean Willy, Pamela Salem (Emily Trent)
by Rob Nixon