Suspense is one of the most attractive aspects of any work of fiction, regardless of whether it’s literary or cinematic. There are all kinds of dramatic devices which can be employed to entertain and enthrall an audience but suspense must surely be the strongest. It doesn’t always come off, lots of movies have fallen flat on their faces while attempting it, but the slow escalation of tension, the encouragement of anxiety which feeds off itself and grows incrementally, is one of the more potent techniques available to the filmmaker. If suspense is to be effective as either a source of drama or as the by-product of it, then it needs to be based on characters whom the audience has gained empathy for or discovered some kind of connection with. Strongroom (1962) is a superb exercise in the art of rubbing the viewer’s nerves raw, of depending on such imposters as fate and coincidence to wring as much tension as possible out of a simple story.
A heist movie is nearly always engrossing and that’s particularly the case when the robbery in question starts to go wrong, when the seemingly meticulous plans go awry. In Strongroom nothing much goes right for anyone from the beginning. WE see the employees of a bank preparing to head off for a long weekend as the Easter holidays have arrived. Across the street, in a van, three men – Griff (Derren Nesbitt) along with brothers Len (Keith Faulkner) and Alec (Morgan Sheppard) – watch and wait for the manager to be left alone inside. These guys have a little larceny in mind and think they’ve got all bases covered, all the angles figured out. But the manager, Spencer (Colin Gordon), staying a little later than usual and keeping one of the staff , Miss Taylor (Ann Lynn), to help him has a knock-on effect. It throws the calculations of our would-be master criminals out of kilter and leads to an unexpected situation. In order to avoid detection or the alarm being raised prematurely, the robbers rashly decide to lock the manager and his helper in the vault and make good their escape. It’s only afterwards that they start to think of the consequences of their actions – the air supply in the strongroom is finite and unless they want a murder charge hanging over them, they’ll have to figure out some way to ensure the captives are released without betraying themselves. And this is where the aforementioned suspense kicks in; one piece of ill-fortune follows another as the plans slowly unravel and the chances of freeing the pair diminish as rapidly as the oxygen they so desperately crave.
Strongroom was brought to the screen via the writing of Max Marquis and the prolific Richard Harris. While there are definitely holes in the plot, some big enough to drive a large truck straight through, the peril of the central situation is such that they can be glossed over. It helps too that there’s so much happening at every point that there’s not a lot of time available to spend on analysis of some of the implausibilities. The robbery itself is well realized and neatly executed, but the real interest, the meat on the bones of this movie, only arises once the bank has been raided. Essentially, there are four interconnected strands which vie for the viewer’s attention throughout. The growing sense of panic is seen from two separate angles, that of the manager and his assistant trapped in the vault and slowly coming to terms with the very real possibility that they’re not going to be rescued, and also that of the thieves who find their ideas for freeing the captives foiled by one bad break after another. Therein we have the restricted, claustrophobic core of the movie, and out of that springs another of the plot threads. The relationship which develops between Spencer and Miss Taylor gives the whole thing its heart; by showing the endangered pair to be real, likeable people who only now appreciate what life has to offer, and how much they have taken it for granted, the suspense actually means something and the tension and drama take on a human face. Alongside all of this is the plodding procedure of the police which is methodically going about its business and inching ever closer to the guilt-stricken criminals. So, plenty going on, most of it absorbing, and all in the space of an hour and a quarter.
There’s been plenty of discussion on this site recently on the subject of directors and how they and their work are received. We’ve spoken of auteurs, of the overrated and the underrated, and for the most part we’ve concentrated on those filmmakers working in Hollywood. As such, it’s no bad thing to look at a British example here. Vernon Sewell had a long directing career, stretching back to the 30s, and Strongroom came in the latter stages of it. I’ve had the opportunity to see a fair bit of his work now and I have to say it’s generally entertaining – low budget but very solid and with some nice stylistic touches from time to time.
There are no big names in the cast of Strongroom although seasoned movie fans, especially those with any interest in the British B variety will recognize Derren Nesbitt and Colin Gordon. Nesbitt tended to be cast as a villain quite a lot, usually in fairly straightforward roles. This time he’s given more to do and I found him quite engaging as the de facto leader of the gang whose naturally cockiness is gradually chipped away at by his own conscience, his awareness of and need to put right what he realizes is a dreadful wrong placing him in jeopardy. His chief partner in crime is Keith Faulkner, all cold blood and callousness sitting dangerously alongside an explosive and volatile temperament. Colin Gordon was one of those faces you always see in British cinema and he is excellent as the buttoned up banker who finds himself reconnecting with his real self, his humanity even, when faced with death. It’s the scenes in the vault, when Gordon and Ann Lynn open up to each other and reveal a different side to themselves, that elevate the movie to something more memorable than the run of the mill thriller it was probably intended to be.
Strongroom was released on DVD in the UK some years ago by Odeon, although it looks like it might now have slipped out of print. That disc presents the movie in 4:3 Academy ratio, which seems an unlikely choice for a film released in 1962 and is probably open-matte. The image is nothing special, quite soft in places and the contrast is ramped up higher than is necessary. However, even if the picture quality is variable, it doesn’t matter all that much as the movie itself is riveting enough to make such concerns fade as you watch the story unfold. I found this to be a very effective crime/suspense picture, something of a low budget gem and I suggest anyone who hasn’t seen it should keep an eye out for it – there’s lots to take away from this one and very little that is likely to disappoint.