Thursday, May 14, 2015

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

The caper movie would prove to be one of the most popular film genres of the 60s. Both the British and American film industries would produce some very fine and very successful examples of the breed. One of the movies that kick-started this genre back in 1960 was The League of Gentlemen, a very big box-office success in both Britain and the US at the time.

This was an ambitious British production which established a template that would be followed many times - a master criminal assembles a team of crooks, all of them experts in their field, with the intention of pulling off one spectacular heist.

The twist in this movie is that the criminals are all professional soldiers. Or at least they were professional soldiers, until their military careers were abruptly terminated for assorted  crooked activities. Dishonesty comes as naturally to them as soldiering.

In this case the criminal mastermind is a retired lieutenant-colonel by the name of Hyde (Jack Hawkins). He is the only member of the team without a criminal record. He does however have a grudge against the army, having been retired against his will on what he considers to be an insultingly meagre pension.

Ex-Major Race (Nigel Patrick) acts as Hyde’s second-in-command. Ex-Captain Mycroft, a con-man who specialises in masquerading as a clergyman, will be in charge of organising the equipment needed for the robbery. Ex-Lieutenant Lexy (Richard Attenborough), a Signal Corps officer cashiered for selling military secrets, will be the communications specialist. Ex-Captain Weaver (Norman Bird), cashiered for alcoholism, will be the explosives expert. Porthill (Bryan Forbes), Stevens (Kieron Moore) and Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) will provide the muscle and general military expertise.

The highlight of a caper movie has to be the heist itself so ideally you need to have some preliminary action/suspense sequences to keep the audience’s interest high until the major action set-pieces which provide the climax. In this case the gang carries out a daring robbery at an army base in order to provide themselves with the weaponry they’ll need for the main robbery. This sequence neatly blends high tension and sly comedy and is superbly done.

This movie establishes another crucial part of the classic caper movie formula - the planning and rehearsal of the robbery. In this movie, given the fact that the robbery is to be carried out like a military operation, there are definite resemblances to classic British war movies. Lieutenant-Colonel Hyde’s gang are briefed for the raid in exactly the same way the heroes of a war movie are briefed before a battle. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, gently mocking the heroic stiff-upper-lip style of British war movie. 

A good caper movie should of course combine plenty of action, plenty of humour, witty dialogue and a great deal of style. The League of Gentlemen scores highly in all these categories. Bryan Forbes, who had a successful and varied career as a screenwriter, wrote the script and it ticks all the required boxes while also having some fun playing around with accepted genre conventions. Basil Dearden’s distinguished directing career included some excellent suspense thrillers and he handles matters here with his usual skill and panache. Arthur Ibbetson did the cinematography so this movie had plenty of talent behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Apart from being a great actor Jack Hawkins has just the right air of authority as the criminal mastermind Hyde. This is however very much an ensemble piece and fortunately every one of the performances is spot on. In fact it would be unfair to single out any one performance.

Cult movie fans will have fun spotting a couple of familiar faces in very small roles - Nigel Green as a lecherous truck driver and Oliver Reed as an exceedingly camp chorus boy.

While the emphasis is on fun there is a little bit more to this film. It’s clear that Colonel Hyde, and to some extent the other gang members, are the sort of men who don’t really fit  into the civilian world. Their main motivation might be the hope of easy money but they’re also looking for the sense of belonging that they’d had in the army. It’s an opportunity to relive happier times and this gives the movie just a slight touch of melancholy.

Network’s Special Edition DVD provides a lovely anamorphic transfer, an excellent audio commentary with Bryan Forbes and a variety of other extras - all at a ludicrously low price.

It's worth comparing The League of Gentlemen to Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960, which started the American caper movie craze 

Compared to later caper movies such as The Italian Job this is a movie that is more character-driven than action-driven and it’s noticeably lacking in graphic violence. It does however have more than enough excitement and suspense. A very well-crafted movie with a very literate script and superb performances which all adds up to terrific entertainment. It still stands up as one of the best movies of its type. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Great post on a very enjoyable caper. I liked it a lot recently too, as per my own review: