Payroll (1961)


Who doesn’t love a heist movie? You? Very well, you better leave now then. I love them and this one a UK production from 1961, is a good one.

On one hand you’ve got a brand spanking new radio-connected, highly sophisticated fully-gadgetized armored van that’s taken over running a factory’s payroll. On the other hand you’ve got the plan to rob that van, and both these things, everyone believes, are totally, utterly, absolutely foolproof. Which means they’re anything but. A gang’s been planning to rob the payroll delivery but as the movie begins they’re dismayed by that new van. They’ve just been working on this too long to give up now, and everybody’s got something personal riding on the heist; they’ll just have to adjust. And they do, practicing with toy cars on a hand drawn map, preparing with lots of dramatic music and zooms in and out, characters walking right up to the camera and delivering lines right at it, and racing around in ridiculously fast little cars. You’d think that would all amount to a silly film, but it works really well somehow, goes quickly and stays interesting with lots of great scenery shot from extreme angles, and big band, horns and bongo go-go music (but not too much) so it just moves and swings, baby. All that jazz, those camera tricks, plus vicious, brutal moments of surprising but blink-and-you’ll-miss-it violence are part of all the creative ways director Sidney Hayers (Burn, Witch, Burn, lots and lots of TV) makes up for the low budget, and it works.

The robbery is pretty jarring for a movie from that time, from the deformed horror show look of the men when they pull the nylons down over their faces. They furiously ram the van from both ends, kill the driver and get shot at, but even with a factory full of employees running after them, they still they make off with the loot, give or take a few flyaway bills. Due to injury, death, guilt, bickering and greed, and one surprisingly screwed up murder attempt, the group splinters and (always to me the best part of these stories) destroys itself. But this story has something extra that sets it apart from the usual formula.

You’d think the heist happens kind of early in the movie, but that’s because it’s prelude to some juicy twists that come in when two women who initially seemed less than minor characters become prominent players. After the robbery the remaining few payroll bandits manage to dodge the police, but never expect the kind of trouble they get from the dead van driver’s vengeful widow, who deals with her grief by taking justice into her own hands. She’s played really creepily well by Billie Whitelaw (the Omen, Frenzy), and she starts terrorizing the group’s weak link, the bookkeeping clerk and inside man (William Lucas) at the company, leaving him frightening notes and a “present” at the same time his wife gets sick of him (Françoise Prévost plays that woman as fiery and spicy as Whitelaw is cool and scary). Prévost wanted a big cut of the dough, goes after lead bandit Michael Craig, and draws him into a plot to bump off her “snivelling, spineless” husband. There’s a cool moment when the women cross paths and Whitelaw gets some more blackmail material. Just as the armored van was rammed from both sides, these women manage to put the squeeze on both Lucas and Craig from drastically different positions, creating some great pressure to fill out the second half of the film. When the police are distracted by Lucas’ epic meltdown, resulting in a house (and money) fire, widow Whitelaw follows the remaining culprits and gets her chance to dole out some justice. “I’m Harry Parker’s wife” becomes her chilling signature line.

The handsome Craig (No My Darling Daughter, Mysterious Island), not too well known outside the UK but good in the other movies I’ve seen him in. Here he’s smart, charismatic, cold and cocky, and believable as the default leader of any operation, not to mention a major attraction for the ladies, though he has little use for them. Craig without decent support would make for a dull group though, and all the other actors hold their own; because they’re set up right from the start as a serious, nervous, real bunch, determined but worried and walking on eggshells, all with something invested in the heist, they’re well distinguished from each other just by being different in normal ways, instead of having to act out some screenwriter’s obvious, invented quirks. Tom Bell is excellent as Blackie, the group member that survives the second longest (they meet their demise in simple but memorable and creative ways, except possibly the final one which is a little too abrupt), in a great early performance by the man you might know as Helen Mirren’s coworker in the Prime Suspect series.

Loved it, recommend it for anyone who loves a heist film, definitely very entertaining, memorable and easily stands up beside classics of the genre.

(picture source)


8 thoughts on “Payroll (1961)”

  1. Glad to hear you found and enjoyed this film Kristina. A lot of these low budget British noir films have passed people by, but they’re well worth tracking down. Payroll is a little gem for all the reasons you highlighted.
    There’s an excellent DVD of the movie of the movie available in the UK.

    1. Thanks! Yes I always think British films have mastered the crime genre like no one else, and I’m really enjoying working through my latest finds from this era. Hope you enjoy the next few coming up.


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