The League of Gentlemen
Mercifully, this is far from Extraordinary. Jack Hawkins (Colonel Hyde) assembles a gang of ex-army criminals to rob a bank (which, when it eventually occurs, is impressively-staged and convincingly speedy), taking in an army supplies base along the way. The real pleasure is in the character interactions and casting, so the early stages are probably the most enjoyable part of the film (Hawkins putting each member in their place as they enjoy a hearty meal at his expense is a highlight).
Besides Hawkins, the standout turn comes from Nigel Patrick as the louche Major Race (continually referring to Hawkins as “Old darling“). The team also comprises Sir Dickie Attenborough (amusingly cast as a wide-boy lieutenant, following on from Private’s Progress no doubt), Terence Alexander and Bryan Forbes (who wrote the screenplay and whose missus Nanette Newman, unsurprisingly, pops up in the bath). Hawkins apparently underwent cancer treatment during filming, and his voice certainly doesn’t sound its best at points.
The aspect of the film I found most surprisingly is its frankness over sexual matters; Newman’s character is upfront over her infidelities and disinterest in her husband (“You’ve had your porridge this week“), and on catching her with another man Alexander turns and leaves after paying him some money for his trouble. Captain Stevens (Kieron Moore) works as a masseur and a blackmailer references all the young men coming to his flat (It takes “all sorts to make a world“). When Hyde is going through the roll call of the men’s indiscretions he notes that Stevens was a follower of Moseley and then was forced out of the army for “catching the odd men out” (appearing to draw an association between repressed homosexuality and fascism). When Attenborough’s Lexy is put in the same room as Stevens, the latter comments “Like being back at school“, to which Lexy replies, “I sincerely hope not“.
Roger Livesey’s “Padre” Captain Mycroft was prosecuted for “gross indecency in a public place” (when asked if he has ever attended Billy Graham ministries, he replies “I always went forward“). Race continually makes suggestive remarks (“You’d be surprised where my caravan has rested“, “One gets into terrible habits at the YMCA“) while Hyde himself has not seen his wife in years, and refers to her as a bitch when glancing at her portrait (in the novel Hyde is explicitly referred to as gay). The portrait is of Deborah Kerr from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (another Powell link). And then there’s an Oliver Reed cameo, mincing his heart out as a performer in Babes in the Wood who gets the wrong room.
Director Basil Dearden made Victim the following year, the premise of which picks up on the plight of Stevens; a gay man being blackmailed over his sexuality. The director had started out on Will Hay features (including The Black Sheep of Whitehall and The Goose Steps Out), Dixon of Dock Green inspiration The Blue Lamp and, just prior to this, race relations picture Sapphire. He would continue to do interesting work over the next decade, until his premature death in a car accident in 1971 aged sixty.
If the crime doesn’t pay ending is a predictable consequence of the era in which it was made, the ease with which this transpires is a disappointment. I suppose you could suggest that, because the operation is timed with such military precession, it’s appropriate that it should go awry due such a minor detail. But I hoped for something a little worthier and more intricate to mirror all the effort put in.
Still, it’s interesting that issues of class and rank are firmly supplanted by solidarity in the final shot. Hyde exerts a level of discipline among the ranks that suggests he cannot help playing at soldiers (it’s the only life he knows) but he is adamant that everyone gets an equal share, as it’s the only way to ensure loyalty. His greatest concern is betrayal so it’s also his greatest relief (beyond even getting clean away) when this doesn’t transpire. Even the mock company bears the signs of a socialist ethic (“Co-operative Removals Limited“).
Besides Livesey, another Michael Powell veteran appears in at the film’s climax. Robert Coote nearly steals the show as a silly old duffer and ex-army man who shows up at Hyde’s door at an inopportune moment. He proceeds to get progressively more plastered and raucous for the next five minutes.
Cary Grant was offered the lead, and it was apparently written with him in mind, but it’s hard to imagine it not transforming into a much less intriguing movie if he had starred. As it is, it really feels that it is poised on the cusp between the ’50s and the ’60s. With Grant’s involvement it would surely have been firmly positioned in an era that was gone.