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Robbery

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

 

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Sands of the Kalahari

Desert wildernesses always provide an intriguing backdrop for movies. The vast emptiness of such settings, and their necessarily harsh conditions, has a minimalist quality that not only encourages but demands strong characterization. The barren, unforgiving landscape means that attention is easily focused on those who people it, and the various tribulations they must endure. As such, everything tends to appear heightened – dangers and relationships, strengths and weaknesses – and the potential exists for a rawer, more honest type of drama. Sands of the Kalahari (1965) is a survivalist epic, superficially an adventure story with a deceptively simple plot. As the tale unfolds both the group dynamic and human nature itself are explored, not always with palatable results, and the twists it takes are fascinating. It also benefits from an ending that is simultaneously bleak, shocking, and tantalizingly ambiguous.

A charter plane has a freak encounter with a swarm of locusts, forcing a crash landing deep in the Kalahari desert of Namibia. Six disparate individuals stumble from the burning wreckage and must find a way to survive beneath the equally scorching African sun. This will be a test of their resolve, their character and their inventiveness. Ultimately though, the trials ahead of them will ask some very fundamental questions about the humanity of all these people. Initially, it’s the pilot, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport), who takes charge and sets about organizing the rag-tag group. However, this film never follows a predictable course, and Sturdevan is gradually revealed to be too venal to serve as a leader. It gradually becomes apparent that particular mantle is to be passed on to O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), a hunter and, crucially, the man with the gun. When Sturdevan decides to set off alone in an attempt to reach some settlement and alert them to their plight, O’Brien has no serious rivals for dominance. Of the other men, Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) is elderly, Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) is too soft, and Bain (Stanley Baker) is a recovering drunk with a leg wound. The sole female is Grace Munkton (Susannah York), an attractive society type and a fish out of water. While this little band are fortunate enough to come upon shelter (a cave) and a plentiful water supply, the problem of acquiring food remains an ever-present threat. Their temporary refuge is situated in an area with a large baboon population but, as Grimmelman points out, eating these fearsome creatures would be a little too similar to cannibalism for anyone’s taste. O’Brien points out that the apes represent competition for the limited food available, and so he takes it upon himself to wipe out as many as possible. However, even as group begin to settle into a familiar routine, it begins to dawn on Bain in particular that O’Brien is not the kind of man to tolerate competition of any kind, from any quarter. And so the internal tensions, and threats, rise in tandem with the need to survive. As the story develops, what becomes more and more obvious is that the danger from within is as great as, and perhaps even greater than, that posed by the forces of nature.

So, aside from being a first-rate adventure yarn, what is Sands of the Kalahari about? Well, the idea that adversity brings out both the best and worst in everybody for a start. All of the six people who find themselves stranded in the back of beyond are tested in various ways, physically, psychologically and morally. It’s how each one responds to the challenges, what they learn about themselves and we about them, that constitutes the core of the drama. Those who eventually find a way out, and I don’t think it’s a major spoiler to say that not everyone does, have been altered by their experiences. In addition, as viewers we are forced to reassess our first impressions of each of the characters: the quiet, passive ones become more proactive, the weak demonstrate reserves of strength, and the strong have their weaknesses revealed. This kind of plotting keeps us forever on our toes, never allowing any sense of complacency regarding the perception of characters to set in. Just when we think we’ve got someone figured out, either the circumstances or the sheer perversity of human nature throws us for a loop. Of course the movie also raises questions about how civilized we really are, and how far we’ve actually traveled from our primitive ancestors. Even those who started out disparaging supposedly lesser peoples, and Sturdevan is a good example of this, gradually come to rely on the techniques and skills they had previously thought beneath them in order to survive. That’s viewing things from a positive  perspective; but there’s a darker flip side to this too. If there is a lesson about using our basic abilities to overcome difficulties then there’s another one relating to the dangers of regressing to the point of savagery. The evolution of O’Brien’s character is a perfect illustration of this, where he ultimately fails as a human being but, conversely, rises to become master of his barbaric environment.

Sands of the Kalahari was produced by the team of Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield after the actor and director had been successful with Zulu. Endfield, along with cameraman Erwin Hillier, really made the most of the location shooting. There are some beautiful long shots of the desert, and the old western staple of positioning tiny figures against a background of massive rock formations is an ideal way of emphasizing the pettiness of the struggle these people engage in, their relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and of course their isolation. Additionally, the close-up work in the interior of the cave highlights the  tightness of the group, and makes the betrayals and treachery that occur all the more powerful. I think it’s worth noting too how well Endfield made use of the baboons surrounding the survivors. These apes are presented as a kind of noisy yet brooding menace lurking just beyond the limits of the camp. The animals are frequently photographed from above, perched high on rocky outcrops, which suggests their surveillance of the movements of the human interlopers has both a remoteness and a disdainful quality.

Stanley Baker was one of the biggest stars that British cinema produced, and was possessed of a magical and rare combination of talents that allowed him to convincingly play sensitive and tough parts with equal assurance. His role as Bain, the drunken engineer from the Congo, afforded him the opportunity to touch on both. As I said earlier, none of the characters in the movie follow the path that their initial appearances allude to; Bain seems at first to be a washed-up loser, a physical and emotional cripple, a largely ineffectual presence. However, his trials trigger something of a rebirth, and he is gradually and credibly transformed into the most heroic figure in the cast. Squared off against Baker is Stuart Whitman, radiating pure machismo and the ultimate survivor. I’ve often been less than impressed by Whitman’s performances, feeling not so much that he was poor but more that he could have been a whole lot better. Sands of the Kalahari provided him with probably his best part, playing to his strengths and exploiting his physicality to great effect. He has all the attributes of the hero, and starts off looking like the man who we’re going to root for, the guy most likely to save the day. However, this ruthless hunter, the group’s self-proclaimed provider, turns out to be a very different beast. It’s he who displays the lightest veneer of civilization, who adapts most readily and successfully to the primal surroundings. Whilst his character’s progression, or perhaps regression is a more apt description, is entirely logical and maybe even predictable, this does nothing to diminish the shock of his final actions. I really don’t want to go into details regarding the ending of the movie for to do so would rob it of much of its power for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that Whitman’s character fulfills his ultimate destiny, and the last shot leaves everything open to each individual viewer’s interpretation. Susannah York’s displaced socialite stands between Baker and Whitman, her presence representing both an enticement and a provocation. Although she plays a pivotal part in the drama I felt she was, ironically, the least rounded character; by the end of the film she, and her motivations, remained something of an enigma for me. The rest of the cast – Davenport, Andrews and Bikel – all did sterling work and I can’t think of a moment when I wasn’t gripped by their performances. Davenport in particular turns in a marvelously manipulative piece of work, pulling the viewer’s sympathy every which way as his lecherous pilot rises, falls and rises yet again in our estimation.

Sands of the Kalahari is a movie that seemed to be out of circulation for an awful long time. I can vividly remember catching a late night television broadcast of this some time in the late 80s and I can safely say I was enthralled. The film, and that jaw-dropping finale, remained lodged in my memory, but it never appeared again. To say I was delighted when I saw the announcement that Olive Films in the US, having licensed the title from Paramount, was putting it out on DVD would be a huge understatement. The movie is also available on Blu-ray, but I believe it’s locked to Region A. Anyway, I purchased the DVD and I certainly have no regrets – it was high up on my wish list for so many years. The DVD from Olive is a basic bare bones effort but the transfer should give no cause for complaint. It’s anamorphic scope and looks great – sharp, clean and colourful. If you have any affinity at all for adventure movies, especially those with exotic locales and compact casts, then this should push your buttons. What’s more, this is no brainless action flick; it’s a literate and thoughtful piece of work that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I recommend it, unreservedly.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in 1960s, Cy Endfield, Stanley Baker

 

Yesterday’s Enemy

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The popular perception of British war films of the 1950s is that they all feature stoic types keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying themselves with unimpeachable honour whatever the provocation. Hammer films seem to have an equally stereotypical image; they are all exploitative gothic horrors shot using a vibrant and vivid palette. Well, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) is a war movie produced by Hammer at its peak, and it stubbornly refuses to conform to any preconceived expectations. Instead, it casts a cold, bleak eye over a complex moral issue and asks questions for which there are no easy answers.

The story takes place in Burma in the early years of WWII when the outcome was still far from certain and everything hung in the balance. A small group of British soldiers, under the command of Captain Langford (Stanley Baker), are struggling through the steamy, oppressive jungle on the retreat and trying to get back to their own lines. Physically exhausted and burdened by the wounded men among their number, they stumble upon an isolated village where they hope to rest up before pressing on again. However, this village has been occupied by a detachment of Japanese and a firefight ensues before it is secured. In the aftermath of the fighting Langford makes a discovery that will have far reaching implications for both him and the men he leads. The small Japanese party had a full colonel with them, and he was carrying some clearly important documents. The only surviving member of the Japanese group is a Burmese informer and Langford is convinced he knows more than he’s saying. Feeling sure that the captured documents contain vital information about the enemy’s plans, Langford sets about breaking down the informer’s resistance. When all his threats prove unsuccessful Langford takes what will be a fateful decision. He orders the execution of two Burmese villagers in order to convince the informer that he means business. When his own people cry foul and protest that this is nothing short of a war crime, Langford makes the point that if one is to successfully fight a war then the gloves have to come off. Although the information is now in his possession, Langford finds his command menaced by Japanese reinforcements and unable to move out due to the mounting number of casualties. The situation is further complicated by the damage to the radio that means all communication with HQ is impossible. As if the apparent futility of Langford’s brutal action were not enough, the positions are swiftly reversed and he and his men find themselves facing an enemy who takes an equally pragmatic approach to fighting a war. Thus, two basic questions are raised. What exactly constitutes a war crime? And does the cause for which one fights justify the means employed? These are not simple issues, and the film offers no pat answers; in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions.

The burden of command - Stanley Baker in Yesterday's Enemy.

Yesterday’s Enemy was envisaged as a film that would damp down some of the furore that had arisen in the wake of Hammer’s previous look at the war against the Japanese, The Camp on Blood Island. That movie was accused of tasteless sensationalism, and the studio therefore tried for an entirely different approach to the subject. Val Guest’s direction is a nice mix of toughness and sensitivity, but it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality. We’re allowed to see and learn enough about characters to empathize with them but they are still ruthlessly killed off with the minimum of fuss – Gordon Jackson’s Scots sergeant is a good example of this. The action scenes have a brutal urgency and intensity that feels authentic, with violence erupting unexpectedly and ending just as abruptly. If one wanted to be picky it would be possible to complain about the studio bound setting, but I thought it was well designed and only the slightly hollow sounds occasionally drew attention to the fact that it wasn’t a real jungle. Anyway, this is not a movie that depends on strong location work; the plot is driven by character and psychology for the most part. The role of Captain Langford was an ideal one for Stanley Baker and gave him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He is no petty martinet but a hard headed realist who’s been handed a set of circumstances that no one could envy. He has to consider the welfare of his men, weigh this against the bigger picture of the campaign in general, and then make ethical choices that are both painful and unavoidable. He is no fanatical barbarian but an ordinary man – he has a wife and children back home – to whom fate has dealt a lousy hand. His Japanese counterpart, Philip Ahn, is almost a mirror image. This is not a stereotypical sadist devoid of conscience and contemptuous of foreigners – he’s a cultured man of the world, a former diplomat and student of English literature. All of this heightens the moral dilemma at the heart of the picture since neither man is a villain in the true sense of the word. The support cast is filled with familiar faces from British cinema and Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Richard Pascoe in particular make a strong impression. It’s also notable, and highly effective, that there’s no music whatsoever from beginning to end, the noises of the jungle providing the only soundtrack accompaniment.

Yesterday’s Enemy comes to DVD via Sony in the UK, and it’s been given a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. The image is clean and sharp with only very minor instances of damage. As for extras, the disc itself has a gallery and English HOH subs plus there’s an excellent 24 page booklet penned by Marcus Hearn that’s detailed and informative. The title was until recently exclusive to MovieMail in the UK, but it’s now gone on general release and this attractive disc can be picked up for a very reasonable price. I’d say this film should appeal to a broad range of viewers – those who like war movies, Hammer productions, and good intelligent drama alike. I was very favourably impressed and have no hesitation in recommending it wholeheartedly. If you think you’ve seen all that British war movies or Hammer have to offer then I suggest seeking this one out – you may be pleasantly surprised.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Stanley Baker, War

 

Hell Drivers

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The biggest problem with British thrillers of the 40s and 50s was their unfortunate tendency to water down the grimmer aspects of the stories. The result was that too many movies displayed an artificial “niceness”. Hell Drivers (1957), fortunately, avoids this trap by setting the story in a world that was far removed from middle-class respectability. Instead, it deals with men without roots risking their necks for a corrupt employer.

Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) is fresh out of prison and in need of a job to get him back on the straight and narrow. On the recommendation of a friend he approaches a haulage firm that has the reputation of paying good wages. This is a firm that takes on all manner of drifters on a no-questions-asked basis so long as they’re prepared to get the job done, even if it involves bending or breaking the law. Getting the job done means hauling as many loads of stone as possible at breakneck speed along winding provincial roads. The foreman and pacesetter is Red (Patrick McGoohan), an explosive Irish psychopath, who takes an immediate dislike to Tom. These two men’s mutual antipathy is at the heart of the film and leads first to a brutal fistfight, and later to the climactic trucking duel along the rim of a quarry. Along the way we learn the reason for the haulage firm’s insistence on speed, and there’s also a three way romance with Baker, Peggy Cummins and Herbert Lom.

The film provides a snapshot of working-class life of 1950s Britain; cheap rooming houses full of men who have no family and pasts that are perhaps best not dwelt upon. Free time is mostly spent hanging around the greasy spoon cafe, with occasional forays to the pictures or a local dance. In fact, it is in the depiction of one of these dances that we see the contrast between the world of the truckers and the more genteel society that the British film industry of the time frequently portrayed. The drivers don’t belong in this setting and the almost inevitable brawl that breaks out causes the further alienation of Baker’s character – he has to duck out on his companions since he can’t afford another run in with the law.

Patrick McGoohan, Stanley Baker and Herbert Lom

Hell Drivers is full of familiar faces: from a young Sean Connery, David McCallum and Jill Ireland to regular character actors Sid James, Wilfrid Lawson, Gordon Jackson and William Hartnell. While no-one gives a bad performance, the film really belongs to Baker, McGoohan and Lom in equal measure. Baker has an intense desperation about him as he tries to blot out his past, and assuage his guilt over the injuries he caused his younger brother, by earning an honest living. Yet he seems doomed to fail as his family spurn him and he betrays his only friend. McGoohan plays the kind of hard, aggressive Irishman I became only too familiar with myself, growing up around my father’s scrapyard in Northern Ireland. However, he takes it to a whole different level by giving us a leering psychotic barely able to control his animal instincts. Lom’s Gino is a touching and tragic figure; a former POW who dreams only of marrying Lucy (Peggy Cummins) and returning to his beloved Italy. I would hesitate to classify Hell Drivers as film noir, but these characters bring it close. There are no happy endings for any of them – even Baker’s romance appears to be built on a shaky foundation.

Hell Drivers is out on DVD in R2 from Network, and it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer. In fact it’s an excellent all-round package spread over two discs. The first disc has the film, commentary track, a Stanley Baker interview, a vintage featurette etc. Disc two holds episodes of Thriller and Danger Man, a documentary with Baker and more. There’s also a 24 page illustrated booklet in the case. This is one of the best British thrillers and it’s been treated to a deluxe presentation on shiny disc.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2008 in 1950s, Cy Endfield, Mystery/Thriller, Stanley Baker

 
 
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