Monday, October 13, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The League of Gentlemen" (1960)

There was a time when Jack Hawkins was Britain's top movie star. This might not seem likely, since he didn't get serious about acting until he was about 40 and, while certainly handsome, his bulldog-like visage did not naturally lend itself to romantic or leading roles.

Nevertheless, his skills as a thespian kept him quite busy in movie-making even after his star fell, usually in supporting roles as authoritarian figures -- sometimes deluded ones -- in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and many others. A heavy smoker, Hawkins even continued to act after having his larynx removed in 1965 due to throat cancer; other actors dubbed his lines until his death at age 62.

"The League of Gentlemen" represents one of his few post-1950s leading roles. It's a bank heist movie directed by Basil Dearden with a distinctive, clever twist: the robbers are not professional criminals but former British military officers who have fallen on hard times. Not only is it a chance for the eight men to collect £100,000 each -- about $2 million in today's dollars -- but they get to use their wartime skills in a peacetime setting.

As Lt. Col. Norman Hyde, Hawkins is the unctuous brains of the operation. The only one lacking a criminal record or black mark on his military dossier, he's incensed at being cashiered after 25 years of loyal service, dismissed "redundant." He certainly doesn't appear to want for money -- Hyde lives in a large, secluded mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce. In the film's tipsy opening sequence, he emerges from a sewer grate at night wearing a natty black tuxedo.

There appears to be more backstory there, but screenwriter John Boland, adapting the novel by Bryan Forbes, purposefully keeps it close to the vest. Hyde lives alone, out of choice rather than economic necessity, and lets the dishes pile up in the kitchen. There is a large portrait of a handsome woman in the foyer -- actually Deborah Kerr -- and when asked if she is his wife and is she alive, he announces, "Regrettably, the bitch is still going strong."

Testy language for 1960! I was also surprised by a brief shot of a chestful of nudie magazines, with bare breasts clearly visible.

Hyde researches the military records to find the perfect other seven men for the job:
  • Lt. Edward Lexy (Richard Attenborough ... I know, I'm fixated) -- Radio man and somewhat weaselly ladies' man.
  • Maj. Peter Race (Nigel Patrick) -- An itinerant gambler and black marketeer of impeccable breeding, he becomes Hyde's second-in-command after an initial antagonism.
  • Captain "Padre" Mycroft (Roger Livesey) -- A quartermaster dismissed for gross indecency, he now impersonates a priest.
  • Maj. Rupert Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) -- A decent, reserved chap kept economic cuckold by his wealthy, younger wife.
  • Capt. Frank Weaver (Norman Bird) -- Bomb disposal leader who was drunk when his squad was blown up.
  • Capt. Stevens (Kieron Moore) -- Ousted for homosexuality -- "odd man out" is how Hyde describes him, in the only suitable language for the time -- he's reliable muscle.
  • Capt. Martin Porthill (Bryan Forbes) -- Booted for killing Greek separatists, he now sponges off older women.
Despite a limited amount of time to personalize each character, the actors do a wonderful job of building a distinctive persona that allows them to stand out from each other. Attenborough and Livesey in particularly are quite charismatic, in very different ways. Livesey steals the show in a sequence where they impersonate active-duty military officers to steal arms from the local army station. He pretends to be a general and uses the opportunity to lord it over Hyde and Race.

There's a lovely fun scene where Hyde first gathers them all at a swanky club, after having invited them to read an American pulp fiction novel, "The Golden Fleece," that describes exactly the sort of bank robbery Hyde is proposing. After declaring them all "crooks of one sort or another," he proceeds to detail each man's shame individually, and then declare the operation as their chance to get their revenge on the system that betrayed them.

The rest of the movie proceeds as a fairly typical crime caper: the planning of the job, brushes with danger, internal conflicts between the men, followed by the actual heist itself. It goes off perfectly, but their little company -- which they cheekily dub "Co-Operative Removals Ltd." -- is betrayed by the one small detail they overlooked.

British movies were not covered by the Hollywood Production Code, in which lawbreakers always had to be shown receiving their comeuppance. But that appears to be the case with "The League of Gentlemen," in which they are all carted off in the same policy lorry at the end.

The robbery scene is almost anticlimactic. It's mostly notable for the scary-looking gas masks the men wear after smoking out the whole block around the bank. Complete with breathing tubes and a metallic voice projection device used by Hyde, they make for a positively frightening bunch.

I enjoyed "League" for what it is, a rapscallion crime caper, though I admit to being a bit disappointed that it was not what I thought it would be. I expected a harder-edged serious crime drama, something like Stanley Kubrick's early work, in which Hyde is consumed by rage at British societal structure and bent on revenge.

But this isn't existential crisis; it's fun 'n' games. That's all well and fine, but I'd like to see the version where Hawkins gets to play a homicidal maniac in a tux.

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