Payroll

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As British cinema entered a new decade in the 1960s it was possible to discern a shift in attitude, a gradual move away from the style that been dominant in the post-war years. Previously, films had concentrated largely (though by no means exclusively) on the middle classes and the concerns that occupied them. That aspect had been especially noticeable in crime pictures and thrillers; and while it’s not without its attractions and merits, it did impose certain restrictions and sometimes led to an oversanitized or slightly twee form of storytelling that set it apart from the grittier fare that US audiences were exposed to. Naturally, there were exceptions, but they were fairly thin on the ground. However, a film like Payroll (1961) fixed the spotlight squarely on the professional criminals of the lower classes, and the result was a much more explicit portrayal of violence and sexual relations than had been the case before.

Payroll is a heist movie and develops according to the usual formula for such films: planning, execution, and the inevitable unravelling of everything. The story follows three interconnected strands, all of which are vital in bringing about the final resolution. Thus, we see the tale of the criminals, the accomplice, and an unfortunate victim all become bound together in a heady mix of violence, sex and double-cross. The opening has plans being laid to snatch the payroll of a Newcastle factory. The four man gang engaged in this little conspiracy is headed up by Johnny Mellors (Michael Craig), who acts as both the brains and the muscle of the quartet. What initially appears to be a straightforward job is complicated by the decision of the management of the factory to alter their procedure. Abandoning their old methods for having cash delivered, they choose to employ a new security firm with a seemingly impenetrable armoured car at its disposal. Naturally, this necessitates a change of tack on Mellors’ part, and so he puts the squeeze on his inside man, Pearson (William Lucas), to seek out the specs of the armoured car in order to establish its weaknesses. The reason behind Pearson’s involvement with these types is an old and familiar one – a desire to make a quick buck. His wife, Katie (Francoise Prevost), is a war refugee and a greedy woman, frustrated by her nondescript husband’s failure to make good on the potential she thought he had. A weak man living in the shadow of a sneering woman’s disapproval is a prime candidate for corruption, and so Pearson bows to the pressure brought to bear on two fronts. When the subsequent robbery turns sour and leaves two men dead, one of whom is the driver and boss of the security firm, the cracks in Mellors’ plan start to show themselves. Pearson finds himself facing the dual threat of a duplicitous and adulterous wife while also being stalked by a vengeful and suspicious widow (Billie Whitelaw). At the same time, Mellors is struggling to hold in check the increasingly volatile forces within his spooked gang. Ultimately, the sour combination of murder, illicit relationships and plain rotten luck bring matters to a head, and a bleakly satisfying conclusion.

One of the pleasures of watching British thrillers of this vintage is the glimpse we get of cities and landscapes now transformed. The location filming around Newcastle adds to the gritty and realistic feel of the piece by placing the characters in the down at heel urban world that the genteel classes didn’t inhabit. It’s not hard to see why these men and women might find themselves driven by their desire to escape the drab surroundings. Director Sidney Hayers shot a lot of the movie around run down businesses and decaying lockups, all of which add to the aura of despair. He also did fine work when it came to dealing with the action scenes; the heist itself, a brutal street mugging, and a grotesque double murder in a swamp all reveal an urgent and dispassionate style that’s highly effective. The casting was also spot on, with Michael Craig displaying the kind of machismo and edgy charm that fits right in with his role as the ruthless gang boss. Of the others making up the criminal foursome, Kenneth Griffith probably comes off best as the jittery, conscience-stricken weak link. Of course, William Lucas is arguably even more successful in conveying human frailty as Pearson; a thoroughly beaten man who’s driven to the very edge of reason by his own guilt and the provocation of his grasping spouse. Francoise Prevost really nailed her portrayal of a latter-day femme fatale, goading her husband into crime before betraying him sexually, and finally crossing up her lover for profit. The other female role, that of Billie Whitelaw’s avenging widow, is equally powerful. The mask-like set of her features takes on a terrible aspect as her relentless quest for righteous retribution drives one man out of his mind and another to his death.

Payroll has been released on DVD in the UK by Optimum and it looks very good. The film is presented in a progressive and anamorphic transfer at 1.66:1, and the print used is in particularly good shape. The image is clean and sharp, and I can’t honestly say I was aware of any significant damage. As usual with Optimum titles, there are no extras offered and no subtitles. However, the movie itself is a genuine keeper. If you’re looking for a hard-edged British thriller with steel in its guts then you won’t go far wrong with Payroll. It has that post-noir feel to it that’s enormously attractive, and I strongly recommend checking it out.

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15 thoughts on “Payroll

  1. I fully agree. I bought this a while ago because of my fondness for Brtiish thrillers from this period and enjoyed it immensely. I don’t believe it’s been shown on TV very often here in the U.K. because it was completely new to me. It’s low profile is surprising in such a good, hard-edged thriller. I’ve watched it twice since then. Defintely a “keeper” as you say.
    I think you’ve homed in on all the strong charactersitics of the film in your review. I too was impressed with the Newcastle area locations, pre-dating GET CARTER’s similarly effective use of the general area by a few years.
    I strongly second Colin’s opinion on this one.

    • Cheers Dafydd. I agree the movie is definitely what could be termed low profile, but I’m at a loss to explain why. I’d certainly never seen it (or even heard of it to be honest) before it appeared on DVD and bought it blind after thinking the synopsis sounded interesting. I’m glad I did.

      Actually this film and Get Carter would make a nice double-bill, wouldn’t they? It would also pair up nicely with Val Guest’s Hell is a City – another tough thriller from around that time that makes good use of its North of England locations.

    • I should point out that it would be wrong to expect this movie and Get Carter to have the same style – a decade passed between the making of the two films and that saw changes both in filming styles and society in general. Still, the locations and the frank way they approach urban crime is a shared feature.

  2. Great choice Colin, but then I was almost bound to think that – on a rainy (or snowy) Sunday afternoon there’s probably nothing I’d rather watch than a widescreen 1960s black and white British movie than almost anything else. Rather than GET CARTER perhaps HELL IS A CITY would be a better comparison perhaps (albeit Manchester rather than Newcastle).

    Always really liked this film, especially as its part of a rather unheralded trio of films made by director Sidney Hayers and writer George Baxt. The other two, VAMPIRE CIRCUS and NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (aka BURN, WITCH, BURN), are probably better-known so it’s great that you give this film so much space as PAYROLL definitely deserves more exposure than it’s had – and the strong picture quality of the DVD only makes it even more of a pleasure.

    Really enjoyed reading this Colin, cheers.

    Sergio

    • Thanks Sergio.
      Yeah, I mentioned in my reply to Dafydd that Payroll and Hell is a City make a good pair – the fact they come from the same era means they have more in common with regard to tone.

      I can’t imagine why this film isn’t better known, there’s barely a false note struck at all. Then again, the same could probably be said for countless other movies that have slipped into semi-obscurity.

      And yes, B&W British movies of this period have a charm all of their own – I’m thinking of doing a write up on another for next time as it happens.

  3. Colin,

    Although I have not had the pleasure of viewing “Payroll” it certainly seems to be one that should not be missed. In my opinion this film has been given an unimagitive and uninteresting title and I cannot but wonder that, had “Payroll” been provided with a title less “ordinary”, it may have attracted more public interest.

    While “Heist” films have always been numerous and popular, I feel that those that provide an interesting title, (” Rififi”, “Gun Crazy”, “High Sierra”,” Le Circle Rouge” etc.etc.), have a distinctive advantage over those that do not, and unless they attract critical acclaim or “word of mouth” publicity, they are inclined to languish, as far as the general public is concerned. It is only when these films are recommended by people such as yourself, are these “gems” uncovered.

    Thank you for your interesting review.

    • You may have something there – Payroll, as a title, doesn’t exactly jump out at you. In fact, it reminds me of another British heist movie (albeit one that’s more modest in its ambitions) – Strongroom. Again, it’s impressive in its execution and tension, yet few people have seen it or even heard of it.
      Having said all that, I try not to be unduly influenced by titles alone, as I’ve certainly experienced the opposite effect too; movies with highly attractive titles that fail to deliver on that initial promise.

      Thanks for the comment Rod.

  4. I’ve never even heard of this film, but it sounds terrific. There’s nothing quite like a good caper picture. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

  5. Pingback: PAYROLL (1959) by Derek Bickerton | Tipping My Fedora

  6. I got this one some time ago because Billie Whitelaw was in it, then stuck it at the bottom of the must watch pile. Silly me! It took a year before I got to it. An excellent low renter that hits above its weight division. Fine work from everyone involved. I like these low end UK productions as much as the American Republic Studios quickies.

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