Really enjoyed this — a genuinely bitter, genuinely funny comedy from the Boulting Brothers, which crosses the stylistic approach of their 60’s satires (PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK) with the conventions of the caper movie (the military-style heist of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN seems the most obvious comparison).
The Boultings, Brighton-born twins, were pillars of the establishment (my friend Lawrie observed that John — or was it Roy? — became much friendlier when he spotted Lawrie’s old school tie: “What a bloody snob!” he thought) so their satires are aimed at, basically, everyone else. Foreigners are figures of fun, the working class are thugs and shirkers, industrialists are venal fools, the army are just idiots, etc. And everyone is out for themselves. It’s a darker world view even than Ealing’s subversively scathing THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, where the comedy provides a gentle gloss over the underlying savagery.
One of the reasons this 1965 movie fits into the “Things I Read…” approach is that the Boultings use “funny names” quite a bit, as well as spoof slogans, tying their humour into the Carry On tradition. One might even say the Dickens tradition, but perhaps that’s going a bit far.
BEFORE ENTERING, PLEASE READ NOTICE. Dudley Sutton, centre, was in my first film. Having appeared in working class realist dramas such as THE LEATHER BOYS, he represents a strain of modernity inserting itself into the traditional British comedy.
The convoluted narrative centres on three hopeless career criminals, “Jelly” Knight (Dudley Sutton, all huge sleepy turtle eyes), “Scapa” Flood (James Beckett, a weasel standing on its dignity) and Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith, startled Welsh gerbil), who get out of stir to find that their boss, the Duke, has passed away, having eaten up their loot in medical bills. This information comes by way of the Duke’s girl, a 19-year-old Charlotte Rampling.
Glamour girl Rampling, a former model new to cinema (she debuted in a bit role in THE KNACK earlier in ’65) carries herself well, and makes the greatest impression with her teeth, which are pearly and look very sharp and are generally bared, as is quite a bit of the rest of her. It’s a promising early lead, but gives little hint of the legend that would arise.
Now things get complicated. Rampling is dating a dim-witted Scottish army officer (Ian Bannen, snaggle-toothed and bulbous-headed), who is responsible for delivering the salaries of thousands of men on maneuvers. And the Duke is not dead — he’s pulled a Harry Lime stunt and is plotting this Great Train Robbery from a fake health spa.
The Duke is Anton Rodgers, a familiar face on UK TV, but not somebody I’d ever paid much attention to. Here he turns out to be very good. He’s a loathsome protagonist, if one can even call him protag, with a genuinely vicious bite to his performance. he does that familiar British comedy trick of descending several rungs of the class ladder in a single sentence, usually with an accompanying rise in volume, but it’s nothing like Kenneth Williams’ version of the device. Rodgers is actually a little scary, and very unpleasant. Is it possible for a comedy to get away with being this hostile to all its characters? just about, it seems.
The most pleasant figure is possibly the private eye following Rampling on behalf of her respectable father, who fears she’s in with a bad crowd. Dad is Peter Vaughan, who it seems was never young, and the PI is Eric Sykes, whose talents for scene-stealing via visual comedy tics make him a welcome addition to the mise-en-scene. (Said m-e-s is compromised in my copy since the CinemaScope frame is trimmed to 16:9 for TV broadcast. Sigh.) Sykes is actually key to unravelling the whole heist, since his involvement alerts Thorley Walters of Scotland Yard to the fact that the Duke is alive, that he has the whole criminal underworld working for him, and that his attentions are centered on Sgt Bannen.
The thieves’ gang tests our heroes’ aptitude with a computer ripped off from Jodrell Bank (home of Britain’s biggest radra telescopes, and a source of smutty humour since “Jodrell Bank” is, like “J Arthur Rank,” routinely used as cockney rhyming slang for “wank.”) Beckett scores 2, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: BOOKIE’S RUNNER) Sutton gets 1, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: NIL”) while Griffth causes the machine to combust, as a printout declares “FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: CHURCH OR ARMY.”
It’s an elaborate storyline, faithful to the Boulting’s tradition of peppering their films with unusual accents (how often was Northern Irish heard in British films not directly related to “the troubles”?) and colourful supporting characters. As in the earlier satires, even the regular silly jokes are notably abrasive: Sykes, disguised as a street-sweeper, mistakenly empties a shovel-full of dirt and garbage into a baby’s pram. One nice moment involves “the arms” — these are spoken of with shame and despair, since they are only to be deployed when respectable heists have failed to yield any income. Cut to Kenneth Griffith, reading the Daily Mail with a pair of false arms, while his real fingers are deployed picking pockets. This is where he discovers the Duke is alive — he tries to rob the wrong bloke, and the Duke sets fire to his newspaper, and thence to “the arms” — Griffith extinguishes his flaming extremities and lopes off, the dead limbs bouncing at his sides, simian-fashion.
“The arms” are key — they provide the film with a remarkably bitter ending. Everything has gone wrong. The heist fails, the money is recaptured, and even stealing a tank in order to break the loot out of the bank doesn’t work (the tank falls through the floor, an impressive bit of large-scale slapstick). Rampling’s dad is packing her off to the North, where she’s clearly going to be miserable. She feels something. It’s the Duke, picking her pocket. He’s wearing the arms. He steals a valuable keepsake he’d given her earlier. She gives him a pitying look. He hurries away, “arms” tragically akimbo.