Strongroom

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.

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39 thoughts on “Strongroom

  1. A nice contrast here, Colin, of the type of film you would normally choose to review. These British ‘B’ s are very much part of my viewing diet and I was brought up on ’em!
    First thing I should say is that this film can be found currently doing the rounds on the great Talking Pictures TV channel for UK viewers and I watched it just recently.

    As you point out, what is generally a low-budget, quite well-made, otherwise run-of-the-mill thriller is raised several notches by the playing of Colin Gordon and Ann Lynn. Derren Nesbitt too though displays a humanity we had not expected at the start. Nesbitt is still acting and I saw him on stage within the last 3 or 4 years, quite elderly now, yet still able to display that menace for which he was known at the time this film was made.

    A worthwhile find, and one British viewers can seek out currently.

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    • Jerry, I do like British cinema of this era quite a bit, even if I don’t always feature it here. I also grew up seeing a lot of material like his, on TV, and it’s become an important part of my movie watching experience. I hadn’t noticed the film was on UK TV lately but that’s good to know and gets it a bit of exposure.
      There’s no doubt this is a low budget affair but the acting and Vernon Sewell’s direction make up for deficiencies elsewhere.

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      • Colin, if you had not discovered Talking Pictures TV (it is via Freeview and Sky) then may I recommend it to any who do like these old British movies. This channel is entirely dedicated to them and shows them 24 hours a day!!

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  2. I haven’t seen this one but our local DVD shop has brought in a great mix of Network British films, all selling at £3. A friend who can’t get to the shop asked me to buy a few titles for her including DUEL IN THE JUNGLE , DONT BOTHER TO KNOCK,BOND STREET,PORTRAIT OF ALISON, THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR.
    Several of the hundred or so titles have American actors in the lead roles eg Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain in Duel in the Jungle, Terry Moore in Portrait of Alison.

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    • This kind of film was, at one time, a staple of the TV schedules, filling up slots at off-peak hours. Then that disappeared, although as Jerry points out above there is at least one channel showing such material again, and so much of it became very hard to access. Personally, I’m very grateful that companies like Network (that British Film line is superb), Renown and Odeon/Screenbound have made so many titles available again.

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  3. Great review chum and been meaning to watch this for ages – I think I had it on my PVR which wentand died the other day, taking about 18 months of recordinfs with it – but that is another kind of suspense 😆

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  4. Meant to add, I’m thinking of getting a multi region DVD/blu Ray player. Any thoughts from anyone? I’m fed up not being able to see Region 1 blu Rays.

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  5. Vienna,
    Try Richer Sounds – they should be able to accommodate. I would never want a Region 2 player only as a large bulk of my DVDs are Region 1.

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  6. Thanks for suggestion but Richer Sounds don’t do blu Ray multi region. I’ve just ordered a Sony from a company in England called MRMDVD.com
    It’s coming on Tuesday. Plays all regions on DVD and blu Ray.
    Colin, hope you don’t mind this off topic!
    Just watched Portrait of Alison. Disappointing. Terry Moore has second billing and is only in about half the running time. A Francis Durbridge story – his stories are ideal for radio, not so much the big screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as “off-topic” round here – all kinds of diversions are quite welcome. 🙂

      I have a copy of Portrait of Alison somewhere around but I still have to watch it. I think a lot of these releases via network and so on need to be approached with medium expectations. Plenty of them are low to mid-range budget films and will display weaknesses here and there. Now this may not be the case with the title you’re referring to here, but I have to say I can usually find some aspect of the productions to enjoy. Sometimes it’s the script, or part of it, other times it’s a performance or the locations, or maybe the score or just the mood of the piece. Anyway, whether it’s due to my expectations or simply a question of luck, I can’t say there are too many times when I’ve come away feeling that what I watched was a dead loss.

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  7. Showing my age but I remember as a kid watching the TV serial “PORTRAIT OF ALISON” and really being entertained. The film was made due to the serial’s popularity with a U.S. star brought in. I still like it.

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  8. I didn’t know Portrait of Alison had been a TV series. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more than the movie. I always loved all the Durbridge serials on the BBC. I vaguely remember The World of Tim Frazer with Jack Hedley.
    And another one called Bat Out of Hell..

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  9. Ha! that Vienna…what is she like!! 🙂
    Is this the same Vienna who once stated
    ” I will not be bullied into getting a Blu Ray player”
    Anyway things move on I used to label certain movie fans
    as “high definition freaks” still once you enter the wonderful world of
    Blu Ray there is no turning back.
    I don’t know what the set up is with Vienna’s Sony but on my Panasonic
    you have to code in the region before it will play region coded Blu Ray’s
    generally 1 for region A and 2 for region B
    I got mine from Multi Region Magic and can recommend them,especially
    for their fast delivery.
    If in doubt on any title it’s always worth checking reviews on DVD Beaver
    and Blu Ray.com as not all Blu Ray’s are considerable upgrades on the
    DVD version.
    Vienna-I was sort of joking when I considered MAN WITHOUT A BODY a
    “lost masterpiece” on the last thread.
    Thanks for the two W Lee Wilder Noirs that you mentioned-they sound
    interesting.
    Speaking of Mr.Wilder MAN WITHOUT A BODY is listed as being co-directed
    by Charles Saunders-but this was only to satisfy quota restrictions and Brit union
    rules. Saunders only sat in the corner and watched the master at work.
    Having said that Charles Saunders was no slouch in the very bad movie
    department his WOMANEATER is almost as wacky as MAN WITHOUT A BODY.

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    • Did I say that! Probably. Maybe it’ s my TV or the old films I,m watching, but I dont see any big difference in blu ray viewing. But when I see films like High Noon and Johnny Guitar getting fresh prints on blu- ray – with extras, it annoys me I cant buy them. .
      Anyway, I like the idea of having a player which plays everything..
      I wonder too why Warner Archive films are not encoded. I’ve just received the five film Bill Elliott western Warner Archive collection and they play fine on any player.
      You mean Man Without Body isnt a classic. That’s a disappointment.
      Incidentally I only have about a dozen blu rays!

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  10. It’s interesting that both MAN WITHOUT A BODY
    and WOMANEATER star the distinguished actor George
    Coulouris-as many have noted a long away from CITIZEN KANE
    WOMANEATER sees George finding victims for the huge
    carnivorous plant lurking in his basement-a plant with a preference
    for female victims I might add.
    I might also add that the film is far too wacky to be deemed offensive,
    and besides it proves us Brits can rival anything America has to offer in
    the very bad movie stakes.
    We all. know that George luckily outlived those roles-it just goes to show
    what a good actor had to do sometimes to get top billing.
    Colin-way off topic here and as Jerry says it’s good to see you
    divert from normal RTHC fare to a good old British B.

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  11. Looks good, love these crime Bs, enjoy seeing you cover them. You’d think there’d be more of the British classics on TV in Canada, there used to be and they still do pop up now and then. I just got a region-free cheapy dvd player last summer so I can always start adding imports to my heap!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Just to comment on Vienna’s statement
    that Warner Archive releases are not region coded:
    The major studios that are still releasing classic films,
    mainly Warners and Universal do not generally have
    region coding on their DVD’s and Blu Rays.
    With the boutique labels,as Colin calls them it’s anyone’s
    guess.Twilight Time and Blue Underground are Region free.
    Shout Factory Olive and Kino Lorber are coded region A
    I might add dear reader that Blue Underground are not a
    porno imprint-they have released a series of Harry Allan Towers
    thrillers in double bills in sensational transfers.
    The Towers films are another example of my lack of taste but
    I love ’em.
    Yes Vienna-those Olive specials of JOHNNY GUITAR and
    HIGH NOON are very tempting especially with the raft of
    extras and 4K remastering.
    Import CD’s have them at a greatly reduced price and they will
    certainly get cheaper as time goes by.

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  13. Pingback: Little Red Monkey | Riding the High Country

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