The Jokers (1967) is a great heist comedy starring Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford as brothers from a well-to-do family that values success and status. While Reed has excelled in those areas as an architect, Crawford, despite an innate cleverness, keeps failing his way out of every effort and position. As the movie begins, Crawford is booted from The Royal Military Academy for cheating to win war games. Out of boredom, an aversion to hard work, a general love of elaborate pranks, a desire to outdo each other and prove to the world how intelligent they are, Reed and Crawford resolve to steal the Crown Jewels. Actually they just plan on borrowing and then returning the Jewels, and to ensure that intention is known, they write and send advance letters that say so, thereby using a legal loophole to avoid the punishment dealt to those who intend to “permanently deprive.” The point of the whole exercise, then, is their amusement, the proving of a point against the powers that be, and the celebration of their ingenuity.
The brothers kick off their plot with an escalating series of bomb scares, meant to test reaction times and processes of the police and the bomb squad. Luckily for them the squad’s Colonel (James Donald) is a pompous and dim publicity hound who lets media across the safety barriers to capture him in his heroic moments after defusing the bombs (he later picks a familiar police detective out of a suspect lineup). Reed makes the bombs, Crawford phones in the threats and then both hover nearby to watch the drama. In one botched instance the bomb goes off prematurely, just as Reed runs toward the squad to warn them. “It’s not important anymore!” Reed waves after the explosion, making a fast getaway. After the right amount of threats, they plant the most important bomb at the Tower of London, embed themselves in the bomb squad, walk right in alongside the locked upright Colonel, knock him out and proceed to loot the crowns, orb and scepter. They make their escape in the chaos of the detonation and under cover of night and fake blood, and hide the jewels under the floorboard in Reed’s flat.
They revel in the fame and national obsession with “who stole the Crown Jewels” until the time comes to return the items. Now there’s a problem. Reed discovers to his horror that the Jewels have vanished. As the police come and Reed explains the letters, the intention and the plan, Crawford says he hasn’t the slightest idea what his brother is talking about and refuses to be drawn into whatever criminal activity Reed is up to. The rest of the picture has Reed trying to wrap his head not only around his brother’s betrayal but his ability to pull this double-cross off without so much as a hint through the whole process. You don’t know whether Reed is more angry or impressed with Crawford.
This is a hilarious and suspenseful caper film with several memorable set pieces and random sight gags like crazy driving stunts, antics at swinging parties, and a bit where Crawford runs and dives into the back seat of a waiting car, going totally horizontal before flying into the back seat. The crime scenes are brilliantly orchestrated and the heist creates such paranoia that some poor guy jokes about declaring “the Crown Jewels hahaha” as he enters the country and then has his car torn apart in an inspection. During one tight schedule, Crawford is delayed at a party by Edward Fox who’s romancing some lady. Fox is great as an upper class twit who’s so laid back he’s practically unconscious. Among the many other familiar faces are Harry Andrews, Daniel Massey and Brian Wilde.
Crawford is delightful. He was an actor I grew up watching on TV’s Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, as “Frankie” the man inept at absolutely everything you can name, and whose disastrous bumbling infuriated and bewildered many employers, onlookers and loved ones. So it’s no surprise to me that in The Jokers, he can hit that perfect balance of seeming clownish, clueless and perpetually astonished but hints with a devilishly knowing glance that there are actually some well-oiled turning gears in that head. The weight of years of condescension and belittlement from Reed and the whole family have made him hungry for some superiority and power and when he gets it he savours every second.
Reed was in his prime here, so arrogant, imposing and bossy, but he’s a likable egotist. You love seeing Crawford get the best of him and seeing the steam come out of Reed’s ears. The interplay between Reed and Crawford is fantastic and a joy to watch, with the competitive spirit between the actors (they almost seem to be trying to upstage each other) working well to create the crazy relationship between the characters. Excellent movie, highly recommended.
This post is one of two Reed movies I was inspired to review as part of Mike’s Take on the Movies’ 5 Day Oliver Reed Festival.