1960 Basil Dearden satirical heist classic is a memorable must see for the great cast and story and might just be Jack Hawkins’ best role. Hawkins plays a longtime military man who’s been unceremoniously retired due to “redundancy.” Left with all those skills refined in a quarter century of now unappreciated service, and nothing to do with them, not to mention a surplus of bitterness, Hawkins makes the most of his last moments of file cabinet access to scout some top notch military talents with extra special quirks and blemishes, i.e. a hook by which he can recruit them for the most perfect bank heist ever devised. The movie opens with the puzzling but intriguing scene of Hawkins crawling out of a wet and grubby sewer in his tuxedo and best ring and cuff-links and then getting into his Rolls Royce. He drives to his stately but neglected mansion, where he assembles several identical mail packets. In each he puts a book, The Golden Fleece *, a cryptic invitation to lunch and half a five pound note. The arrival and opening of these mailings neatly introduces us to the characters, a pompadoured slick piano playing gigolo (Bryan Forbes), a closeted gay fitness instructor and political agitator (Kieron Moore), an electronics whiz who sold wartime info to the enemy (Richard Attenborough), a suave black market operator (Roger Livesey), one man whose secrets were covered up by his rich wife, off whom he sponges, tolerating her many affairs (Terence Alexander), one whose subordinate soldiers died as a result of his boozing (Norman Bird) and one aging and slightly perverted con man (Nigel Patrick).
We learn of these pasts in detail when they arrive at Hawkins’ special lunch and he makes his way around the table, pouring the men fine liquor and serving up quality blackmail or shame on their disgraces to get compliance. But that’s not the whole reason they stay on. As Hawkins himself has experienced, these former military men have all descended into boring lives, utter tedium and hopelessness, but he’s disappointed to discover their ennui is so bad they can’t even work up some excitement about the daring mission in the book he sent to inspire them. So Hawkins sees that a big part of his task will be to reawaken in them a fighting spirit and desire to win, and somehow knit these misfits together into a smoothly working unit. He bonds first with Livesey, who mostly crashes at the Y. Livesey’s neat streak freshens up Hawkins’ disaster of a kitchen, and he moves into the mansion/dorm along with the others who get their rooms and schedules and enter into a strict military lifestyle.
This is a who’s who of British acting greats of the era, all doing top notch work to make their characters distinctly interesting, and I could easily go on about each and every one. Hawkins is brilliant, absolutely perfect in this role, with a refined nobility that only barely masks a sly, rough and dangerous interior. He mocks endearingly, knows how to handle everyone, is scary when he loses his temper, quick-thinking when things go wrong, delivers instructions with lots of drama and an amused childlike glee, and gets to drop a then-major B-bomb when he walks by a portrait of his wife and describes her personality (in-joke: the portrait is of Deborah Kerr, the same used in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in which Livesey stars). The story and script are excellent, and what’s more it was written by one of the stars, Bryan Forbes (aka pompadoured gigolo), who later wrote produced and directed films like the zany comedy The Wrong Box, and the creepy Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Forbes’ real wife Nanette Newman plays the trampy wife of Terence Alexander, and there are some very memorable appearances, like Oliver Reed as an outrageously effeminate aspiring actor looking for the rehearsal hall of Babes in the Woods, or Gerald Harper as a hilariously gullible and nervous Army Captain who, in the guise of a cafeteria inspection, unwittingly lets the gang loot the weapons off his base and then frame the IRA for it. There’s a last-minute arrival, an obnoxious army buddy (Robert Coote) of Hawkins’ who’s just moved in next door and crashes the cash-dividing farewell party, where they try to get him as drunk as fast as possible (one suitcase full of money pops open to everyone’s horror and you hope Coote is too hammered to notice or remember).
You no doubt noticed I’ve hardly addressed the actual planning and heist, which is not to say it’s not interesting but proves just how important the characters are to the film’s success. The actual robbery looks amazing, with everyone in gas masks, and it all seems to go off like clockwork. Hawkins is a perfectionist with slides, models and diagrams for everything in his dungeon-like cellar, plans for the division of the money, for timing and distraction, but as we all know, a lot of the fun in a heist movie comes from waiting for that one stupid, unforeseeable, unimaginable little thing that messes up the Perfect Plan, and in this movie there are a couple of good false alarms and close calls but in the end Hawkins will have nobody to blame but himself. Which of course he accepts like a gentleman.
You’d think it was a straight comedy from my description but it’s satirical gallows humor and director Basil Dearden expertly balances that tone with a big message of this movie, and that’s the way veterans are cast adrift, finding it hard to adjust to regular life after such high-strung action and with some unusual talents, and at worst cast aside by society and government. These men do reawaken their sense of purpose and accomplishment, and regain their confidence, as evidenced by Terence Alexander’s newfound nerve to finally stand up for himself when he finds his wife (yet again) with another man. When heist eve has come, Hawkins expresses both nerves and (with his back turned to the camera, even) some sadness that the mission will be over, and you’ll feel the same way. You hate to see them part because for them it’s been like old times when what they did really mattered, and for us it’s been such a fun ride.
Very highly recommended and definitely one of my new favorite movies.
The League of Gentlemen is available as part of the Criterion Basil Dearden set
*Greek mythology 101, tale of Jason & the Argonauts on a quest to nab the fleece of a winged ram.