Thursday, May 12, 2016

In short: The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960)

It’s 1901, and the cause of Irish independence needs money. So what better plan could there be than to break into the nigh impregnable Bank of England and steal the King’s gold bullion? Because a bunch of people with dubious Irish accents won’t be able to plan this sort of heist on their own, the cause’s upper echelons import US-Irish criminal mastermind Charles Norgate (Aldo Ray).

Norgate does need a bit of time to come up with a good plan, but does some fine preparation work breaking into a museum, befriending alcoholic sewer experts as well as Monty Fitch (Peter O’Toole) the upper-class sportsman type Captain of the part (insert correct military jargon here) of the Royal Guards responsible for protecting the Bank. He also finds time for the important business of romancing widow and boss of the cause’s spy operations Iris Muldoon (Elizabeth Sellars). Once the plan’s ready, there certainly won’t be anything that could go wrong, right?

John Guillerman’s The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a surprisingly entertaining film despite a rather dubious script that doesn’t bother to flesh its characters out properly and includes a painfully awkwardly realized romance. This good impression is particularly surprising in a film that additionally has to try and pretend Aldo Ray is any kind of mastermind as well as really rather attractive, both things even I can’t bring myself to suspend my disbelief for.

Characterisation beyond presenting someone as a slightly whimsical comic relief figure isn’t the script’s forte. In fact, the only character here with an actual, interesting arc is O’Toole’s Fitch. As the actor plays him, he’s a man hiding his disgust at himself for being really not more than a tin soldier without anything going for him except his upbringing and his uniform under much alcohol and bluster who finds a chance to prove himself and grows through it. I’m not even sure how much of this is thanks to the script – whose other characters you could sum up with names like Whiny O’Malley without being unfair – and how much to O’Toole; I very much suspect the latter, O’Toole making much out of the tiniest hints of an inner life the script provides.

The plot tends to digress into the wrong directions too – the romance between Norgate and Muldoon and Whiny’s jealousy really doesn’t add anything to the film, and the last act turn-around of the Cause against the robbery doesn’t do much but add a distraction to what was until that point a half hour of very tightly directed heist suspense with the film cutting between Norgate and his buddies digging (well, and Whiny whining) and avoiding discovery, and Fitch slowly realizing what’s going on right below his feet.

Apart from O’Toole, it is Guillermin’s often clever – and always good-looking – direction that turns this one from just a badly written film without much to say or do into an interesting little heist movie. The director grabs every opportunity to create little moments of suspense and our old paradoxical buddy, mild excitement, that very aptly distract from the various failings of script and casting; though even he doesn’t manage to convince me to think of Aldo Ray’s love life with anything but a shudder.

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