Director: Lewis Gilbert.
The film begins with four men in a car. Four men handed four guns they weren’t expecting to use, none with any previous criminal charges and each from a different walk of life: a boxer, an airman, a clerk and a gentleman of leisure. So what brought these men, all WW2 veterans and strangers only weeks before, to this moment before a violent heist?
The answer comes in flashback to all four recent pasts. First we meet Joe (Richard Basehart), who quits his office job when he can’t get time off to visit England and his pregnant wife Mary (Joan Collins). Mary would already be in the US with him if not for her mother (Freda Jackson), a possessive drama queen who attempts suicide to delay Mary from leaving with Joe. The stress and Mary’s advanced pregnancy takes a dangerous turn and if she doesn’t get to America in time, she may die.
Boxer Mike (Stanley Baker) has injured his hand, but agrees to one last fight for the money. With a stunning comeback he caps off his career and adds to his savings, but his wife Angie’s (René Ray) loser brother Dave (James Kenney) always needs handouts to get out of some scrape or debt. Mike foresees he’ll have trouble living without the roar of the crowd and working a normal job; when his gangrenous hand is amputated, his prospects shrink drastically.
Air Force sergeant Eddie (John Ireland) is married to popular actress Denise (Gloria Grahame). While she’s out fooling with her hot young co star Tod (Lee Patterson), Eddie keeps dinner warm and fumes with frustration. The affair and the possibility of divorce obsess him so, that he doesn’t report for his next assignment in Germany, which makes him a deserter.
Decorated Veteran Miles “Rave” Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey) is a spoiled man-child, busy posing for paintings and sponging off wife Eve (Margaret Leighton), who knows all about his casual affairs and his gambling and cuts him off. Rave’s father Sir Francis (Robert Morley) knows his son is no gentlemanly war hero, but a liar, cheat and scoundrel who murdered unarmed Germans during the war. Francis not only denies Rave access to the family fortune, but admits he would love to see his son dead.
These four desperate men with little future promise and little left to lose run into each other at the Four in Hand bar and commiserate over drinks. Rave, who recognizes Mike from his last fight, suggests he give up the fruitless job hunt and buy a tobacconist shop that’s up for sale. All Mike needs is a thousand pounds, which is just what he’s saved up over the last 12 years of fighting. Too bad Angie just used it to bail out her brother, who then skipped and vanished. The loss makes Mike, in Rave’s brutally frank words, a one armed beggar.
It doesn’t take long for the wily, insidious Rave to talk the other three into robbing a postal van carrying the regular bank delivery of recycled currency. He works on them from all anges, pointing out they created their situations because they lack guts and don’t grab life with both hands. He sums up their weaknesses, teases them with the potential loot, makes it all sound easy, fast and harmless, and casts himself as their noble saviour. Once he hooks them we loop back to the opening scene after which the real, psychotic Rave comes out: the grinning cop-killer, the monster who murders Mike and Eddie as they try to escape. Rave hides the loot at a church and Joe gets away with just the amount he needs to get Mary to the States but Rave won’t be happy until all accomplices are permanently silenced.
Lewis Gilbert (Alfie, Bond movies, Ferry to Hong Kong, Cast a Dark Shadow) steers this noirish drama slowly but surely to an explosive and bleak finale. The look is dark and dreary urban, with creative camera work, most memorably when Mike learns he’s penniless and his whole world literally tilts, or when Mary must choose between husband and mother and so is framed in a shot with them on each side and her back to the camera. The best part for me were the four strong performances by the men, and supporting acting by their women (shining even in underwritten roles), which create four distinct paths, personalities and sets of complexes and obstacles (Baker was my favourite). They’re beaten down and primed as prey for a mad manipulator, but aren’t swayed too easily, mulling over and debating according to their characters’ needs and natures before committing to the crime. That heist is a short part of the film, comprised of a realistically disorienting series of shocks, betrayals and disasters, leading to a fateful airport meeting and phone call, and a finale complete with bloodstained cash being blown about the runway.