As a sucker for heist films, I fell hook, line and sinker for this British heist flick. Add in the element of a team of specialists working together to pull off an impossible job, and I was officially done for. 'League' was released this summer through the Criterion Collection as part of the Basil Dearden's London Underground Collection, featuring three other movies. The cover art grabbed my attention right away, and once I read who starred in the movie, I couldn't wait to see this one. One of the earlier heist films I've seen, it's an obvious influence on countless movies since, all the while maintaining its own unique British style.
After 25 years serving in the military, Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) is being forcibly retired. He's devoted his life to the army, and being separated from his wife has little to occupy his time. With nothing but time to spare, he goes about preparing a heist, a bank robbery, an intricate job that will need to be planned down to the tiniest detail. To help him pull off the robbery, Hyde assembles a group of seven fellow ex-soldiers, including right hand man and wheeler dealer Race (Nigel Patrick). As they plan for the robbery, Hyde insists his crew live by military standards and rules, instilling a mindset in them of efficiency and effectiveness. With a huge payday almost in their laps, he reasons that nothing can stop an organized, brutally efficient group of highly trained soldiers. But with a job like this, there's always something you can't plan for.
There is something that's hard to explain about the appeal of a movie like this. It is easy to see its influence on future heist movies from the characters to the set-up to the actual heist to the aftermath. Dearden is calm behind the camera, and it rubs off on the movie. It runs 116 minutes and is a patient -- some critics say boring -- story that slowly builds tension. It is filmed in black and white, reflecting a general darkness and cynicism in the story. There are some odd moments of attempted humor that fall short, but some lines work because they do come out of left field. When asked if his wife is dead, Hawkins' Hyde replies "No, I regret to say the bitch is still going strong." It's 1960. How great a line is that? An easy-going confidence is an inherent part of the story, helping out the slower parts because you know it's heading in the right direction.
That general darkness and cynicism comes across best in the casting and the characters. Would it have been nice to get some more personal development, some background on these men? Yes, but the importance is the team aspect, all of them working together, not individually. Hawkins and Patrick just work smoothly together, their scenes together flowing with an equal give and take. The catch with Hawkins' team is that they're all ex-soldiers cashiered out of the army for one thing or another. The group includes Richard Attenborough as Levy, the radio expert, Roger Livesey as Mycroft, a con man who works as a priest, Bryan Forbes as Porthill, a possible executioner of prisoners, Kieron Moore as Stevens, a Fascist, Terence Alexander as Rupert, a money launderer, and Norman Bird as Weaver, the former alcoholic and demolitions expert. With the exception of Hawkins, none of the characters are particularly likable, but I still found myself hoping they pull off the job. Go figure.
Like so many quality heist movies before and since, 'League' succeeds because other than a few vague details we don't know how the actual robbery is going to be pulled off. Relative to some more modern heist flicks, this one is pretty simple, although it does depend on split second timing, and a lot of things going right. The sequence is Rififi-esque, around 15 minutes in length where little is said, just the action and build-up and musical score moving things along. You're waiting for something to go wrong, anything at all, especially after almost 90 minutes of that slow-burning adrenaline.
Where the movie fails somewhat is the end. It is still 1960, and the whole 'crime doesn't pay' angle is one that movies often played up. It's not how something will get messed up, but when it will get messed up. If you can call it one, the twist is somewhat disappointing, partially because it was hinted at earlier, and also because it wastes a ton of potential. It could have been a classic ending, one that would have been true to the movie's dark roots. As is now, it is still far from a happy ending, but the movie ends on a bit of a whimper if you ask me. That said, I still very much enjoyed the movie. Little known but worth seeking out.
Also, keep your eye out for Patrick Wymark as a sugar daddy, Nigel Green as angry man on a date, David Lodge in a quick but funny supporting part, and Oliver Reed as a gay actor. Three odd, but funny parts considering the caliber of actor and the stars they would become.
The League of Gentlemen <---trailer (1960): ***/****