“Unimaginative, unambitious” bank worker pulls off a big gold heist
Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month, hopefully expanding each others’ viewing horizons.
In this 1951 picture Alec Guinness stars as a meek, unassuming bank employee in charge of the regular gold (bullion) shipment. After twenty years in his job, he’s regarded by the higher ups as a capable and honest man but entirely without initiative or imagination. Little do they realize that all that time he’s planned a heist of the gold. All he needs is the one key to his plan; a way to smuggle the loot out of the country. When he meets the new tenant at his boarding house played by Stanley Holloway, who creates cast metal trinkets that are shipped worldwide to souvenir dealers, Guinness has found the final piece of his puzzle. No wait, there’s one piece more: a gang, and those are not “easy to come by.” To find potential accomplices, Holloway and Guinness wander around London making extremely loud pronouncements about their problems with a malfunctioning but full safe. That bait is taken by two criminal pros (Sidney James and Alfie Bass) and a gang is formed. The very next day Guinness learns he’s getting promoted out of the bullion office which puts the rush on a heist with an untested and ill-prepared crew.
Already you can see the potential for humour from this situation, but the twists and failures, the bumbling and the successes go beyond anything you could predict. The slapstick and silly jokes are plenty, with musical knickknacks going off at inopportune moments, Guinness making shadow puppets to pass the time, clumsy rehearsal for roles in the heist (James and Bass ‘play’ street artist and random bicyclist, assigned their roles because one is colourblind and the other uncoordinated). The heist happens quite early on, about a third into the picture, or I should say it just barely happens, what with Holloway getting mistaken for an art thief, and James and Bass taking off before they tie up and “beat” the “hostage” Guinness according to plan (he ends up rolling around in dirt and throwing himself into the river). The stage of melting down the gold and turning it into little Eiffel Towers goes well, with most of the things shipped out (and clearly labelled, so as not to be sold under any circumstances), and then a persistent investigator starts to connect Holloway’s company truck to the heist.
Holloway and Guinness get the best buddy scenes in the second half of the movie, as they arrive in Paris to check the shipments and find to their horror that some half dozen Towers have just been sold to English schoolgirls. They set off on a frantic chase down the spiral stairs of Eiffel, giddy and dizzy, then through the torturous gauntlet of French customs and passport, back to London, into a girls’ school, and finally a police exhibition and a hilarious chase involving crashes, and a rendition of Old Macdonald’s farm you won’t forget.
Alec Guinness gives a wonderful performance. He has a speech impediment that undercuts the effect of his rants and scolding, but he shows a devilish bent and deep discontent. He’s able to seem both childlike and mature, expressing glee at eureka moments as well as an awareness and melancholy that his life is going without significant event, and little time left to “grab opportunity with both hands.” Watch as he helps lodger Mrs Chalk (Marjorie Fielding) with knitting and reads her lurid crime stories (“You’d Look Swell in a Shroud”) and suddenly gets a idea from the book. Or how the act of picking a stray flake of molten metal off his shoe at two different places helps him connect the dots between gold and trinkets. The first time Guinness realizes he’s finally the ‘boss’ of somebody, he lights up and relishes the position. There’s a funny sequence where, assumed to be the hero of the robbery, he’s paraded from bank office to office, escorted by a growing retinue of identical looking executives; it shows he’s unique, a misfit after all this time in the organization. He’s a playful, expressive fellow but just as funny in deadpan moments, as when he breaks through the wall of a fake castle set to help the cornered Holloway. Though something threatens every stage of his plan, he manages to squeak through every time. Does Guinness get away with it? I won’t tell, but you sure root for him to, and he does start the movie in tropical luxury and relaxation (where we get a cameo by Audrey Hepburn!), telling someone about the heist that we proceed to view in flashback.
Director Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda, Dead of Night) squeezes humour or character out of every second, setting up many great moments in a perfect picture.
British crime of a far more serious tone was my pick of the month for Mike, and by weird coincidence both our movies have the same screenwriter! click here to see…