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Ah, how the heist film has changed. Begun, more or less, as a species of film noir in the '40s (maybe 1949's Criss Cross?), the heist film quickly became its own postwar entity, distinct from mere gangster films or even crime films whose plots hinged on bank robberies. The heist/caper saga developed a few integral rules - the mechanical planning and implementation would take up the lion's share of narrative space (no simple hold-ups are allowed), and the crime in question, no matter how elaborate or ingenious, must fail, before the inevitable torque of folly, greed and fate. This last imperative has, of course, fallen away in the last few decades, as the Ocean's 11 series and other high-profile heist epics manage to construe grand theft as a general good that not only succeeds but deserves to succeed, against evil casino owners or bankers or whomever is chosen as the Bond-like villain of the piece. It's a sign of our times, of the slippage of an essential ethical baseline, that the heist movie now seems to be less about the inevitability of criminal doom than about how the charming likes of George Clooney, Jason Statham and their ilk can steal and get away free and clear, as we'd all like to do in our least responsible daydreams.
It wasn't always thus; for decades, a heist film ended only one way - *had* to dramatically end only one way. The genre also, as exemplified by Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Basil Dearden's The League of Gentlemen (1960), often had larger themes to contend with, statements about postwar society and the modern condition. Here, in the heist film proper, elaborate felonies were only committed out of desperation and cynicism, in a world that had left too many veterans of WWII without purpose, reward or power in their own lives. Dearden's film is a crackling yarn that oozes irony from its very pores - in this 1950s England, Jack Hawkins's cast-aside Army colonel decides to get mercenary revenge on a modern culture that has pensioned him out, by enlisting seven other middle-class vets to stage a military raid on a London bank. How could they not succeed, he reasons, with their battle-seasoned savoir faire and excellent training? Dearden, by way of John Boland's novel, stacks the deck by having the team selected for their histories of crimes and venalities (including sodomy, prostitution and porn peddling) as well as their Army skills - each man, Hawkins's mastermind details, has a criminal record shamefully trailing after him, keeping them on the fringes of a new England and from sharing in the postwar prosperity. They're not just ex-soldiers and crooks with capabilities - they're paradigmatic lost boys, haunted by vice and vivid representatives of a ubiquitous class of British men.
So, there's Roger Livesey's smut-selling fake reverend, Richard Attenborough's slot-machine "fixer," Nigel Patrick's slick gigolo, Kieron Moore's brawny gay masseur, etc., each of them nursing wounds and each hearkened back by Hawkins's orotund ex-officer to the respect and camaraderie they enjoyed in Her Majesty's service. The basic pleasures of the heist film come close to being invented here, in montages ironically scored with a plucky-proud military march, as the team coalesces and first lays masquerade siege to a nearby military base, to procure weapons, and then rehearses their attack on the bank. The emotional dynamics of the genre are here in aboriginal form - we're rooting for these chastened losers, as we never would for real bank robbers. Why? The structure of heist films somehow enables us to instantly and unambiguously sympathize with the thieves, whether they deserve it or not - the institutions that are commonly attacked, banks and reserves and casinos, are so often inviolate and all-powerful in our lives that we may all be privately hankering for their demise, and for a redistribution of the economic chips.
Dearden's film is slick and relaxed in that way only mid-century British films can be, with a murderer's row of character actors that is in itself, in aggregate, its own distinct kind of movie pleasure. (Watching each actor fill out each of the disparate character's faults and talents, and rise to the occasion of the nail-biting heist, is akin to watching baseball, or cricket - the struggle of the team is reflective of and in contrast to the role of the individual, and both are rousing, heroic fun.) The standouts are Patrick, as the compulsive weasel of the group, easily falling into a second-in-command position and incapable of not calling everyone "darling," and Livesey, whose phlegmy Welsh voice and resilient manner make you think twice about his character, who may be the most pathetic of the eight. (His confident schtick as a fake officer patrolling the military base's kitchen is a howl.) But, as I've suggested, the ensemble is the film's real achievement - just as it is with the caper itself, and there's something undeniably enjoyable about seeing the various interpersonal gears mesh, each of these saddened, disgraced men doggedly risking everything together for one last chance at life.
As with Rififi (1955), the heist itself in Dearden's film is executed with no dialogue - until someone asks for a match, and the fireworks start in earnest. And of course it ends badly - as it should - but it also ends oddly, with the bizarre and telling interlopement of an old buffoonish war buddy of Hawkins's (Robert Coote), who disrupts the team's final evening together, and wanders drunk amid the ruins of their scheme like a war orphan. The League of Gentlemen is a masterful genre film, exploiting the pulpy aspects of its central conceit while laying bare some uneasy realities about how British culture was handling the emotional fallout of the war generation come the late 1950s. The ghosts of the war - not only those who died, but those nervy and noble soldiers who somehow became ordinary flawed citizens years later - are always at the door, never far from memory.
Producer: Michael Relph
Director: Basil Dearden
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes (screenplay); John Boland (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Art Direction: Peter Proud
Music: Philip Green
Film Editing: John D. Guthridge
Cast: Jack Hawkins (Hyde), Nigel Patrick (Race), Roger Livesey (Mycroft), Richard Attenborough (Lexy), Bryan Forbes (Porthill), Kieron Moore (Stevens), Terence Alexander (Rupert), Norman Bird (Weaver), Robert Coote (Bunny Warren), Melissa Stribling (Peggy)
by Michael Atkinson