Monday, July 24, 2017

The Counterfeit Plan (1957)

Phony money is naturally the name of the game in the slightly noir-tinged 1957 British crime melodrama The Counterfeit Plan.

The movie opens with a fine action set-piece as Max Brant (Zachary Scott) makes a daring escape from the custody of the French police. Brant had been set to face the guillotine, for murder, so we know immediately that we’re dealing with a pretty ruthless character here. Brant and Duke (Lee Patterson) make their way to England. Brant wants to renew an old acquaintanceship, with Louie Bernard (Mervyn Johns). Louie lives in a large and gracious country house. He is the personification of the respectable country gentleman. Except that his life of luxury and gentility is based entirely on crime. Louie is an engraver of genius and he has put his genius to lucrative, if dishonest, use. 

Max is planning the counterfeiting racket to end all counterfeiting rackets. It’s going to be on a very large scale and nothing will be left to chance. The plates will be perfect, the paper will be perfect, the ink will be perfect. These counterfeit notes will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

This is going to be time-consuming and expensive but you have to spend money to make money. Max is no small-time hood. He’s an entrepreneur of crime.

The plan is carefully thought out. It’s fool-proof. It is a minor concern that Louie wants nothing to do with it and has to be coerced into agreement. There’s also another small problem. Louie’s hands are no longer steady enough to do the engraving. Luckily Louie’s daughter Carole (Peggie Castle) has inherited his artistic skills so she can do the engraving under Louie’s supervision.

Mention of Carole brings us to another very tiny potential problem. Carole is a straight arrow. She also has to be coerced into agreeing to take part in this scheme. A problem that Max doesn’t even know about yet is that Carole has a boyfriend who is likely to turn up at any moment.

So obviously Max’s fool-proof plan has some major weaknesses but Max is a positive-thinking kind of guy. The thought of failure does not occur to him. He has good people in his outfit. Duke provides useful muscle but he’s more than just a henchman. He has a fine organisational talent and he has experience in counterfeiting schemes. Max also has the services of corrupt ex-cop Sam Watson (David Lodge) whose inside knowledge of police procedures should give the gang an edge.

Max intends to print so much fake money that his own gang could not possible pass all the notes themselves so his plan is to divide the country up into territories and sell the notes in bulk to other criminal gangs who will then worry about the details of distribution. It’s a very ambitious idea and obviously it means that a very large number of people are going to know about it. This is yet another potential weakness.

In fact that’s one of the things that makes the movie interesting. There are so many flaws in Max’s plan that you know it has to fail and yet it’s fun watching Max sail on so confidently, sublimely unaware of impending disaster. These criminals are both extremely clever and extremely stupid. Max’s stupidity comes from his arrogance. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind. He almost could be, but not quite.

This is a Merton Park Studios production but it looks slightly more expensive than their usual output. It was released in the US by Warner Brothers so it’s possible that some American money found its way into the production allowing a more expansive feel (with some location shooting) than usual. Montgomery Tully was a good solid journeyman director accustomed to getting decent results on limited budgets.

The elaborate nature of Max’s scheme and the fact that the movie spends a great deal of time on the intricate planning and organisation that goes into that scheme makes this movie a kind of forerunner of the heist movies that would become such a feature of 1960s movie-making.

Zachary Scott captures Max’s crazy delusions of criminal grandeur extremely well. Lee Patterson was always reliable in this sort of movie. Eric Pohlmann is fun as a rival gangster.

There are a couple of features that might have been considered quite shocking in 1957, including a rape (you don’t see it but it’s made crystal clear what happened).

The Counterfeit Plan has been released on DVD in Britain by Network and on made-on-demand DVD in the US in the Warner Archive series. The version I have is the Network version which is uncut. The Warner Archive release is apparently a shorter cut version and given that the Network release looks superb and even has a few extras that’s obviously the one to go for.

By the way, whatever you do don’t watch the trailers before you watch the movie - they give away a huge spoiler.

The Counterfeit Plan might be about phony money but it delivers genuine entertainment. Highly recommended.

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