Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Flying Scot (1957)

So why is it that criminals who think they are going to pull one big final job and spend the rest of their lives lying on a beach in Acapulco usually end up living out their lives in a prison cell? The answer of course is that the average criminal makes the mistake of thinking that a robbery will go off as smoothly in practice as they imagined it would when they devised their cunning plan. The awkward truth that nothing works in practice like it does in theory is blithely overlooked. The criminals in The Flying Scot are a perfect illustration.

This low-budget 1957 British movie, released in the US as The Mailbag Robbery, is typical of the unassuming but thoroughly entertaining crime thrillers that the British film industry turned out in huge numbers from the 40s up to the early 60s.

Ronnie (Lee Patterson), a brash and insanely over-confident American thief, has come up with a fool-proof plan for robbing a mail train. Every week the express train The Flying Scotsman transports half a million pounds in old bank notes to London. These are worn notes that are to be destroyed but as Ronnie points out to his accomplices, even if the notes are a little grubby they’re still perfectly valid until they get pulped in London. And Ronnie has discovered an almost unbelievable flaw in the railway’s security. If you manage to secure the right compartment in the right carriage you can simply remove the back of one of the seats and then all that stands between you and the luggage compartment containing the half million pounds is a thin wooden board held in places by a couple of screws.

Ronnie has figured it all out. All he needs to do is to pretend to be newly married and the conductor will be sure to let him have the compartment he wants, and will also be sure not to disturb the happy newly-weds. He’ll need a bride of course, but Jackie (Kay Callard) is quite prepared to play a bride for a share in half a million quid. Once they’re reached the loot all they will need to do is to throw the bags of cash out the window as they pass a particular bridge where another accomplice will be waiting to pick it up. They then leave the train in London and head straight for the airport to catch a plane to South America to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

The fourth member of the gang is Phil (Alan Gifford), another American and a seasoned criminal whose experience will be essential to refine the plan.

Ronnie has rehearsed the plan numerous times and really there are no flaws in it at all. It’s almost too easy. That money is practically begging to be stolen and nothing can possibly go wrong.

In fact of course everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. The whole thing is a shambles from start to finish but the gang members are so determined that they press on regardless. That’s what makes the film so entertaining - it becomes an epic struggle against overwhelming odds and you can’t help feeling that such extraordinary persistence in the face of adversity will eventually be rewarded.

The story is quite good and director Compton Bennett handles matters with skill and precision. Norman Hudis was better known as a writer for comedy (including half a dozen Carry On movies) but his screenplay is admirably focused. The original story was co-written by Australia Ralph Smart who went on to a distinguished career in television as a writer-producer of such classic series as The Invisible Man and Danger Man.

Most of all though The Flying Scot has vitality and style. The lengthy dialogue-free opening sequence is particularly impressive and then you realise that what you just saw wasn’t what you thought you saw. It’s a display of the kind of confidence and boldness of technique that is always particularly pleasing in a low-budget movie.

There are no big names in the cast but the performances are all very effective with Lee Patterson as Ronnie and Alan Gifford as Phil being especially good. The strong supporting players add some nice extra touches of wit and irony as they unwittingly contribute to the gang’s already considerable woes as their plan starts to self-destruct in spectacular fashion.

The movie uses a great deal of stock footage for the scenes of trains rushing through the countryside but this footage is expertly integrated into the film which ends up looking rather more expensive than it was.

Network’s DVD is barebones as usual but the transfer is lovely and the very reasonable price makes this one a definite bargain.

The Flying Scot is low-budget movie-making at its best, witty and stylish and with a boundless energy that puts in a class above the average B-movie. Highly recommended.

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