Archive for The First Great Train Robbery

Great Brain Robbery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2021 by dcairns

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo.

We had just watched Michael Crichton’s best film, THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, which I’d been surprised to find on DVD in a charity shop (movies from 1978 or earlier are rare, except the very obvious ones), and then Belmondo’s passing prompted me to dig out THE BRAIN/LE CERVEAU (1969), a big-budget splashy caper comedy by Gerard Oury (who had just scored a massive hit in his homeland with LE GRAND VADROUILLE). And since the Brain, international master-criminal extraordinaire, is played by David Niven, it tied in with our weekend viewing of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

So, Crichton first. his Victorian heist movie was called simply THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in America, heedless of Edwin S. Porter, but had a FIRST interpolated in the UK to avoid confusion with the 1963 robbery of the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train, which was still a legendary job here. And, funnily enough, that real-life robbery is credited to the Brain in Oury’s film, even though several of the actual thieves had been nabbed by ’69.

Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down are Crichton’s conspirators, briefly aided by Wayne Sleep, master of parkour (in reality a dancer who enjoyed a burst of fame just after this movie). The target is gold bullion used to pay the British troops in the Crimea. the The gimmick is that nobody at this this time had robbed a moving train.

With Geoffrey Unsworth shooting it, the film looks dandy, with Irish locations (Dublin mainly) augmented by skillful matte paintings and the whole thing is elevated hugely by Jerry Goldsmith’s jaunty score — the man understood the romance of steam trains and put that romance into musical form very purely. And the climactic sequence, with Connery doing a lot of his own stunts on top of a locomotive, is everything it needs to be.

It’s interesting to reflect that Crichton’s odd career — medical doctor, novelist, film director, then back to novels (which regularly became films by other people) — culminated in an even odder spree as climate change denier, in which Crichton tried to parlay his medical experience into some kind of expertise in a field he knew nothing about. (The only thing that could have made Crichton’s life odder is if Nic Roeg had followed up his first impulse to cast the very tall 6″ 9 non-actor as Thomas Jerome Newton in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Crichton also created the TV show E.R., an early example of prestige television which it seems nobody now talks about.) This is vaguely relevant here solely because T(F)GTR is a very mercenary film, and I recall Crichton being asked by an interviewer about the consequences for our children if he was wrong, and global termperatures WERE being forced up. He replied, strangely, by asking in turn what if he were right, and we lost a lot of money by trying to tackle climate change? Which struck my as a really strange thing to put in the balance, as if greater wealth were as important as survival.

“All you care about is money,” says Leslie-Anne Down.

“All anyone cares about is money,” says Connery.

There’s a thesis to be written about the popularity of the heist movie in the swinging sixties — the genre slowly gathered steam from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING and RIFIFI, but became almost ubiquitous in the flower power era, even though the unrestrained capitalist impulse would seem incompatible at first glance with free love and all that. Evidently it was VERY compatible. I guess you have the demise of the Hays Code, so “crime must not pay” goes out the window; you have a generation questioning authority; and law and order thrown into disrepute by a second prohibition, that of recreational drugs. And the hippies were not indifferent to money, just hostile to the rat race. And so now we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the muppets.

Anyway, Oury’s THE BRAIN posits two rival gangs after the same target, the secret wealth of NATO. France had temporarily dropped out of NATO, it seems, so Belmondo, energetic and optimistic as ever, sees nothing wrong in pilfering from the remaining nations, and his dour compatriot Bourvil is persuaded to join him.

(If you want a triple-bill, the third entry should be Melville’s THE RED CIRCLE, with Bourvil as a cat-loving detective and yet another train heist, this time staged with Thunderbirds-style miniatures.)

Meanwhile Niven’s Brain is secretly the officer in charge of security and is planning to filch the sacks of cash himself. This being the sixties, he lives in an opulent mod apartment and keeps a pet leopard. He briefs his team with an animatic showing how the robbery will work. Fiona: “I love that he’s gone to the trouble of making an animated film!” Me: “It’s rotoscoped, so he’s gone to the trouble of shooting it all in live action and then animating on top of it!”

Complications, as they say, ensue: Sicilian money-launderer Eli Wallach wants a bigger cut, and his virginal young sister Silvia Monti wants Niven. This film is silly. There’s a lot of very broad slapstick. The train robbery is mostly covered via process shots, so Belmondo doesn’t perform many of the incredible Keatonesque/Jackie Chan stunts you can see in THE MAN FROM RIO, LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOIS EN CHINE, FEAR OVER THE CITY, LE CASSE, but it’s all very lavish and undemanding. The opening title sequence drops every sixties special effect on the cutting room floor and tramples them into a fine paste.

THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY stars James Bond; Klute; Dr. Eileen Flax; Master Shallow; Lord Hibbott – Wedding Two; Night Porter; Miss Moneypenny; Esther Waters; Drogue; Lady Felicity: The Palace; Professor Bernard Quatermass; and Mr. Sugden.

THE BRAIN stars Louis-Dominique Bourguignon alias Cartouche; Sir James Bond; Un drogué; Tuco Juan Maria Ramirez, known as The Rat; Miss Milbanke; Lord Henry Wotton; and Le Sergent Mac Fish.

The Taking of Studley Constable

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by dcairns

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One could wish that author Jack Higgins had invented a Norfolk village with a less silly name than Studley Constable as the setting for his war adventure The Eagle Has Landed, or that Tom Mankiewicz, adapting it, had switched the location to somewhere with more dignity. Scratby, perhaps, or East Runton.

The John Sturges movie based on the book must have seemed a bit old-fashioned in 1976, but as I recall there was a certain market for that kind of thing at the time, as an alternative to the prevailing direction of Hollywood cinema — the IMDb’s list of ten “most popular” films for that year doesn’t feature a lot of romance — things tend to end as they do for Kong and Dwan, or Travis and Betsy, or Sissy Spacek and bucket guy — making Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland — the English rose and the ungulate Casanova — the screen’s sexiest couple of ’76. She even consented to do clothed scenes, but only because they were essential to the plot.

They genuinely are good together. Sutherland plays one of those sympathetic IRA men beloved of Hollywood (in a film crowded with sympathetic Nazis), and Agutter is twenty-five playing “almost nineteen,” a village girl smitten with the romantic newcomer. And she sells it. I don’t know if that was a difficult task — maybe she just defocussed her eyes and imagined chocolate eclairs — but she seems to be spectacularly interested in everything that dribble of a face is doing. Fiona finds Sutherland devilishly attractive, in a deeply weird way. The scene where he orders a bartender to suck his thumb had her all a-tremble.

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While Sutherland has never really mastered an accent in a film, and essays an extreme and wonky brogue here,  he does have fun in the role, grinning satanically and boozing a lot. He’s the only one with good dialogue. And he’s the best Irish Nazi since Stephen Boyd in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. Michael Caine (Jewish Nazi) tries to talk in a slightly clipped way suggestive of being German, and Robert Duvall (another no-hoper when it comes to accents, except for a rather good blue-collar New York which I was surprised to discover wasn’t his native idiom) lays it on thick, though not as badly as he would playing Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION the same year. I would love to see a movie where Sutherland does his FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY English, and Duvall does his Watson, but I think I should go mad watching it.

Caine has a line near the end about no longer driving events but being driven by them, and it’s very apt indeed, but it could apply to everything that happens in this movie from the start. Plot dictates every move, and people keep shifting out of character to allow the plot to get done. Jenny Agutter becomes a murderer — WHAT? Larry Hagman (very amusing) is at least set up as a knucklehead desperate for glory, but that’s an example of a character being machine-tooled and dropped into position to fulfill a narrative function. Spectacular accidents occur in order to move things along more briskly.

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The whole thing is swiped from …WENT THE DAY WELL? which is a much better movie. Higgins even began his novel in a post-war English graveyard, like Cavalcanti’s film, though fortunately the movie dispenses with this pilfered prologue. What Higgins added is the Churchill kidnap plot, which makes it high-concept, and the idea of the Germans as heroes, which is dicey at best. Proving that Caine’s character isn’t anti-semitic in an introductory scene smacks of special pleading, and the efforts to make Duvall’s Colonel likable count for nothing — he would have been just as effective as a bastard, since what the audience cares about is What Will Happen? We aren’t, after all, rooting for the Nazis to win, we are merely concerned by a scheme.

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Higgins reports (in his foreword to the book) that he did encounter resistance to the idea of Nazis as leads, but says that his dealings with German soldiers in the fifties had made it clear to him that “most of them were just like us.” That should worry you, Jack!

Studley Constable (that name!) cemetery is full of gravestones that wobble when anyone touches them.

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The real studly constable (right).