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Robbery

14 Jan

Films centered around heists generally fall into two categories – those which take a light-hearted, comedic approach such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job or Gambit, and the darker morality tales to be found in film noir like The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and others. Peter Yates’ Robbery (1967) takes an entirely different tack, and tells its tale in a semi-documentary style. The movie is inspired by (and I use that term deliberately rather than saying it’s based on real events) the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Yates’ film uses the famous crime as a template but it shouldn’t be seen as an exact reconstruction of what happened. The style of storytelling used is probably the strength of the production, but I think it’s fair to say that it also accounts for its main weakness.

The bulk of the running time concentrates on the planning and execution of the raid on the mail train, and merely touches on its aftermath right at the end. The first quarter-hour sets the exciting yet impersonal tone of what is to follow by detailing a daring diamond snatch in central London. The purpose is to secure sufficient funds to set everything in motion, and it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking. The highlight is the intensely shot car chase that takes place after the diamonds have been grabbed. The whole idea of a car chase is one that has been used, and arguably overused to the point of cliché, in countless thrillers over the years. There are, however, instances where this standard element has been shot and employed to great effect, and Robbery is certainly one of those. After this heart-pounding sequence, the pace relaxes somewhat as we watch Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker), a recently released convict, begin to piece together the team of underworld types he needs to pull off the one big score that will allow him to bow out and retire. However, such things never run entirely to plan and little obstacles and issues arise right from the beginning. Taken in isolation, none of these flaws or setbacks amount to much in themselves; however, the cumulative effect as the story develops is what ultimately counts. While we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of all the principals involved, most of the action plays out from the perspective of Clifton and the policeman, Langdon (James Booth), who is on his trail from early on. The robbery itself is carried out in the style of a military operation, with everyone having their roles clearly defined and the timing judged to the second. As viewers, we’re just as aware as the protagonists of the importance of all the details falling into place and the risks inherent in any deviation from the plan. This knowledge, and the script’s focus on it, is what creates the tension on which the story relies. Nevertheless, despite the most meticulous preparation, such things inevitably start to unravel. As I mentioned before, there are numerous weaknesses in the plan that build up and become magnified over the course of the movie, and it’s impossible to identify any one as the most critical. I found the ending of the film quite satisfactory – it has the kind of moral ambiguity that both fits the era in which it was made and also acts as a truer reflection of real life.

I guess Peter Yates really made his name as a director when he took charge of Bullitt. That film featured an iconic car chase sequence through San Francisco, and it appears that his work directing the opening chase in Robbery played an important part in securing his participation in the McQueen movie. In terms of visuals and pacing, it’s hard to fault Yates – the film has a gritty and realistic feel and moves smoothly along. The main set piece, the actually taking of the mail train, is superbly filmed and cut together to heighten the sense of urgency of the gang. The same can also be said of the subsequent sorting and dividing up of the takings in the bunkers below a disused air force base; the claustrophobic set is used to good effect to emphasize the isolation of the gang and their distance, emotionally at least, from the dragnet that has been cast. Generally, the film does a good job of capturing the flavor of that late 60s era, not the swinging, carefree one which seems to be the popular perception now, but the grim and tough one that was familiar to most working-class people. I said in the introduction that one of the picture’s strengths, perhaps its greatest, was the brisk, documentary tone which simultaneously, and paradoxically, weakens it too. The point is that by concentrating on the nuts and bolts aspects of the robbery a lot of the human drama is absent. We don’t really learn a great deal about the characters involved, aside from their role within the gang, and this means we never get the opportunity to feel strongly for them. I don’t think this is a failing of Yates really as some of his subsequent work, especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is basically character driven.

Robbery features a strong line up of British actors, although the focus is mainly on Stanley Baker and James Booth (both of whom, coincidentally, starred in producer Joseph E Levine’s earlier movie Zulu) and they dominate proceedings. Booth is pretty good as the man from the Flying Squad who cottons on to what may be happening before anyone else. Having said that though, the script allows for no sense of who this man is beyond his job – he’s just a cop, albeit a likeable one. Baker does get a little more back story to help flesh out his character, but again this is strictly limited. Baker was a fine actor, one of the best Britain produced, yet he’s handed a fairly one-dimensional part here. We do learn that he’s desperate to avoid a return to prison, and the scenes between him and his wife (a very attractive Joanna Pettet) give at least a glimpse of the private man. Still, by and large, Baker spends most of his time playing it strong, silent and tough. I guess the most rounded character is to be found among the supporting players – Frank Finlay is excellent as the timid banker, an embezzler who finds himself drawn into Baker’s scheme. Finlay gives a very sensitive portrayal of a man torn by personal guilt and his longing to contact his wife, even for the briefest moment, is quite touching. Barry Foster is underused as one of the senior gang members, although William Marlowe gets a slightly meatier part as Baker’s right hand man.

A few years ago, Robbery was released on DVD in the UK by Optimum. Despite its faults, it’s a movie I’ve always liked a lot and so I was keen to pick it up. However, I was disappointed to find that Optimum’s disc had a full frame, open-matte presentation of the film. Anyway, I had to make do with that compromised edition since there didn’t appear to be any other option available. Recently though, I noticed that Regia Films in Spain had put out a disc, and I decided to take a chance and see if it was any improvement. I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent transfer of the film that presented it in the 1.66:1 ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The disc has no extra features whatsoever, but the subtitles don’t cause any problems and can be switched off from the setup menu. The fact that the movie is now available in anamorphic widescreen is the most important advance as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think the film is a perfect one, but it does have a fine cast and shows off Yates’ flair for action and tense situations. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this title to anyone keen on British crime pictures, or just crime movies in general.

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19 Comments

Posted by on January 14, 2013 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Yates, Stanley Baker

 

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19 responses to “Robbery

  1. Dafydd Jones

    January 14, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Good review Colin. I’m not sure I would agree entirely about the effect of the documentary tone of the film. The story doesn’t allow much time for personal relationships, it’s true, but in “Robbery”, I’ve always found this to be just something that accentuates the professionalism of career criminals. So for me, in this particular film, it works well.
    Very interesting to hear about that Spanish release. It looks as if I’ll be trading in my Optimum version soon!
    Another Stanley Baker ‘heist’ type film from about three years later (1970) I wish someone would get around to releasing soon is “Perfect Friday”. Not the same type of film as “Robbery” (and not as good) but good fun.

     
    • Colin

      January 14, 2013 at 9:30 am

      Dafydd, I think you’re probably right that Yates and the producers wanted to stress the professionalism and clinical precision of the career criminals depicted. As such, it does work very well. I just feel that the avoidance of personal themes makes it a colder experience as a film.

      I’ve never seen Perfect Friday, so thanks for the tip – that’s one to look out for.

       
  2. chrisk

    January 14, 2013 at 9:23 am

    I will look for this soon. If you are interested in heist movies, I would strongly recommend The World In My Pocket starring Rod Steiger, which was surprisingly overlooked when released in the 60s Best regards..
    .

     
    • Colin

      January 14, 2013 at 9:32 am

      Thanks Chris – again, I can’t say I’ve seen The World in My Pocket so I’ll have to keep an eye out for that too.

       
  3. le0pard13

    January 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I’m intrigued. I’ve got to see this one. Thanks for the heads up, Colin.

     
    • Colin

      January 14, 2013 at 7:45 pm

      Cheers Michael. I’ve a hunch this movie isn’t all that well known outside the UK, although it does merit some wider recognition.

       
      • le0pard13

        January 25, 2013 at 6:55 pm

        Finally caught up with this one last night (as my purchased used R2 disc arrived) and I have to say it was a real pleasure to watch. As a fan of Peter Yates, and really limited to his American productions, you can see why he attracted attention from U.S. studios. Certainly, one can see hallmarks of his work, notably all of his films have a real sense of location. The environment and ‘place’ is firmly rooted in the story along with the characters — you see this in ‘Bullitt, ‘The Hot Rock’ (which will be our first duo post of the year Rachel and I will review next week, BTW), ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’, and certainly in this film. Wonderful. I swear Michael Mann must be a Peter Yates fan. You can see influences from ‘Robbery’ and ‘Bullitt’ in his 1995 ‘Heat’ film (which remains a hometown favorite of mine). Anyway, many thanks for the heads up in regard to this work, Colin. If it wasn’t for you, I may never have seen the film. It’s a gem.

         
        • Colin

          January 25, 2013 at 8:04 pm

          I’m glad you were able to track down a copy Michael, and more importantly enjoyed the viewing.
          You’re spot on when you say that Yates had a knack for making the most of his locations, and that it’s discernible from his pre-Hollywood work. The characters are very much the children of their environment and act accordingly. I think it’s reasonable to see some connection between Yates’ crime pictures and Mann’s stuff in the same genre.

          Anyway, I’m happy to have brought this film to your attention and that you got something out of it.

           
  4. Cavershamragu

    January 14, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Great choice Colin though i think, like you, that I appreciate this one more than like it! I know what you mean about the odd, distance between the characters and the viewer – there are plenty of films that focus in details on the planning and execution, like say RIFIFI, but you also get to spend a lot of time with the characters. I suspect that the links top the real-life case, as tenuous as they might actually be, may have made it desirable at the time – but it makes it less memorable. Glad to hear the Spanish DVD is in widescreen and looks good as the cinematography by the great Douggie Slocombe if I am not mistaken is fantastic – he turns 100 next month!

     
    • Colin

      January 14, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      Thanks for pointing out the fact Douglas Slocombe shot the movie – I shall give myself a deserved black mark for neglecting to mention that. It’s great to think he’s still with us, especially bearing in mind his work stretches back to the likes of Dead of Night and It Always Rains on Sunday – his list of credits is amazing.
      Generally, I can live with open-matte transfers but I have to say Robbery looks so much better in OAR – obviously everything does, but the compositions in this movie seem especially badly damaged by opening it up.

      You may be right about the proximity to the events alluded to on screen having had an impact on the way the script was structured. Looking at it that way, it does make sense that they may not have wanted to delve too deeply into the characterization.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        January 14, 2013 at 11:05 pm

        The Losey movie CRIMINAL makes for an interesting comparison in terms of Baker’s portrayal, though I will say that from this point onwards in his career I tended to find that seemed to play a lot quite distant figures, whether something serious like ACCIDENT (again for Losey) or even the naughty caper of PERFECT FRIDAY which is fun but he tends to be a bit chilly when compared with Warner and even Andress (hardly the most expressive of screen beauties). I too wish that the excellent Foster were given more to do here …

         
        • Colin

          January 15, 2013 at 8:51 am

          The Criminal is a fine movie Sergio, made at a time when Baker was doing excellent work. And that’s a good point about Baker’s later roles – maybe he just felt drawn to more remote characters as time went on.

          Barry Foster was a good actor and had a lot to offer – Hitchcock used him very well in Frenzy – but he’s wasted in this movie.

           
  5. john k

    January 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    ROBBERY is one of those films that I should have;but never have seen.
    Colin your fine piece has made me want to make sure I catch up with this film
    sooner rather than later.
    I really admire Stanley Baker who could switch with ease from hero to bad guy roles.
    Through the late Fifties to early Sixties he just made one outstanding film after another.
    I am thinking about titles like HELL DRIVERS,BLIND DATE,VIOLENT PLAYGROUND,
    JET STORM,HELL IS A CITY,YESTERDAYS ENEMY and THE CRIMINAL.
    Another talent that we lost far too soon.

     
    • Colin

      January 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Indeed John. As I said in reply to Sergio above, Baker turned out an incredible body of top quality work over a six or seven year period. There weren’t many British actors who had the ability to convincingly play both hero and villain – Oliver Reed is another who springs to mind.

      If you do decide to track down the film, I definitely recommend the Spanish widescreen version in preference to the UK release.

       
  6. Jeff Flugel

    January 17, 2013 at 8:20 am

    This looks great to me, Colin – thanks for another excellent in-depth review! I’m a sucker for a good heist film and with this sort of dream cast of great Brit thesps, it seems like it can’t go wrong. You’ve been reviewing so many cool sounding flicks that have only been released properly on European DVD…guess I’ll have to get over my aversion to using Amazon.es or Amazon.de (their shipping rates to Japan are outrageous) and start picking up some of them.

     
    • Colin

      January 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Thanks Jeff. Spain has become a great source for hard to find movies in good editions – I think the bulk of my recent purchases derive from there. Generally, I alternate between Amazon.es and Starscafe, depending on which one has the best price at any given time.

       
  7. Dafydd Jones

    February 1, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    For the benefit of some ‘late’ readers of Colin’s review, the film PERFECT FRIDAY, referred to above in a couple of posts, mine included, has just appeared on Network’s ‘Forthcoming releases’ listing. It’s to be released on 20th May, 2013 in the U.K. I should also point out that Network’s discs are usually region 2 only. This is a welcome announcement for Baker fans.

     
    • Colin

      February 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      Very welcome news indeed Dafydd. Thanks for sharing.

       

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