Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The League of (non-extraordinary) Gentlemen

A couple of years ago, when actor-director Bryan Forbes died, I briefly mentioned the movie The League of Gentlemen. It coming up overnight tonight, or early tomorrow morning, at 5:00 AM on TCM as part of a night of films with Richard Attenborough. It's well worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Jack Hawkins plays Lt. Col. Hyde, now retired from the British Army. Not that it was his choice; he was cashiered aftre reaching his quota of 25 years of service. Hyde is none too happy about it, either. He was a personnel officer, and still seems to have access to the personnel files, because he's able to find the names of other former soldiers who are in a state where they can be bribed to take part in Hyde's revenge plot. Hyde gets up six or seven other names, and sends each of them half of a £5 note, with the message that they'd better come if they want the other half of the note. Considering that £5 was worth a fair amount back then, probably a good $100 US or more what with the exchange rate and inflation. And all of these guys have some reason for needing the money: a high-mainenance girlfriend, failing businesses, debts, or the like. So of course they show up.

Hyde's plan is to rob a bank! And to that end, the men he's assembled all have one skill or another necessary to pull off the job. But before they can rob that bank, they're going to need some more specialized equipment, of the sort that you can only get at a military base. Which is where everybody being ex-military comes in, at least in part. The other reason for having a bunch of former military men doing the job is because Hyde has worked it out to extreme precision. But to achieve they precision, they have to practice, so the lot of them go off to some isolated but fading country estate for training.

The robbery of the military base to get their weaponry goes well, although there's a portent that something might go wrong -- without that we wouldn't have the requisite suspense, or the foreshadowing that the big job that is the climax of the movie might go wrong, too. After all, even though we're in Britain, there's still a moral code that you're not supposed to get away with bank robbery! As the training goes on out in the country, there's the beginning of dissension. Not everybody wants Hyde to be in command; one of the men wants to see his girlfriend; and so on. That having been said, the bank robbery appears to go off well, and everybody makes it back to that house in the country to split up the loot, only for something to go wrong there. Thanks to the morals, you know something is going to go wrong, but not necessarily what or when.

Jack Hawkins is quite good to watch, and it's fun to see the meticulous planning of a heist even though we know it's going to founder on some minor detail in the end. The panoply of British actors in the supporting roles -- including the aforementioned Attenborough and Forbes, Forbes' there's Roger Livesey, wife Nanette Newman, Kieron Moore, and several others -- also make the movie worthwhile to sit down with. The one other important aspect is the look at Britain as it was circa 1960. I'm All Right Jack explicity mentions the end of an era for Britain as the Empire is about to fail; kitchen-sink movies like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning attack the old notions head-on; The League of Gentlmen only hints by what it's showing that yes, there's a fading glory for Britain, and look what it's done to men like Hyde. But the London of 1960 that it shows along with the cultural values of the time is a great artifact to have on film.

The TCM Shop lists The League of Gentlemen as being available on DVD in a four-movie set.

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