Monday, 6 June 2011

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Something of an update on the Ealing tradition, The League of Gentlemen marked the debut release of the consortium Allied Film Makers (AFM), combining the former Ealing producer/director partnership Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, as well as Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Jack Hawkins and his brother. Almost all the AFM partners had a hand in the film, with Relph producing and Dearden directing, while Forbes wrote the script and acted alongside Hawkins and Attenborough. The National Provincial Bank, along with the Rank Organisation, provided much of the group's backing, which is rewarded in the film with an in-joke: contemplating his leader ex-Colonel Hyde's bank-robbing plan, ex-Major Race worries, "I do hope he hasn't the National Provincial in mind. They're being awfully decent to me at the moment."
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With a star-studded cast and witty script, the film was a huge box office success, but beneath the comic caper's surface humour lay a subversive vision of disillusioned ex-officers prepared to steal a just reward for serving their country - a theme not dissimilar to that of Dearden and Relph's earlier postwar drama, The Ship that Died of Shame (1955), which also starred Richard Attenborough. As Hyde wryly comments on their redundant military training, "...I think it's a crying shame for so much public money to be wasted. I intend to put it to some practical peace-time use." More akin to a band of crooks than a League of Gentlemen, their pretence of respectability masks a more dubious, avaricious nature, yet they remain sympathetic, with the League granting a new sense of purpose, albeit a dishonest one, to their fractured lives.
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Despite the dark comic tone, sometimes bitter dialogue and the parody of army conventions, the film's resolution conforms to the moral status quo, with the League's members each falling prey to the police. As in Ealing's, The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Charles Crichton, 1951), however, there is little sense of justice having been done; our sympathies lie with the rogues, not the police. The League, ultimately, is less a malevolent criminal force than a boys' club, with its own rules and sense of camaraderie. When, at the end, Hyde sees his League accomplices waiting in the police van, ex-Major Race offers the respect society has withheld, saluting and informing the ex-Colonel "All present and correct, Sir."
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Published by


Volume 27, No.316, May 1960, page 65


Embittered by his enforced retirement after 25 years Army service, ex-Lieut. Col. Hyde conceives a daring plan to rob a bank of one million pounds. After consulting Army records, he contacts seven more ex-officers - Race, Mycroft, Lexy, Porthill, Stevens, Rupert and Weaver - whose post-war careers have become as shady as their service records. But Hyde knows that they are all experts in their various crafts and, after agreeing to plan the raid as if it were a military operation, they repair to Hyde's house for intensive preparation and rehearsals. Phase one consists of raiding an army supply depot for arms and ammunition; Phase Two includes the making of smoke bombs and the renovation of several vehicles. At last, all is ready and the League of Gentlemen assault the unsuspecting bank and make off with their booty. Returning to Hyde's home, their triumphant celebrations arc interrupted by an old Army colleague of Hyde's and a 'phone call from a police inspector. A small, unforeseen factor has brought about their betrayal.

Given a slightly different approach, this film might have developed into an ironic study of the decline of the officer class in peacetime; a valid enough subject, especially when one considers the varying shifts in social status to be encountered in the post-war British scene. Instead, the film concentrates on suspense rather than character investigation. Each of the Gentlemen is introduced by a little establishing scene, after which the script fails to develop their idiosyncrasies and, in fact, weakens its own possibilities by making them all basically shady characters. Bryan Forbes (as in his script for The Angry Silence) brings a lively surface edge to the dialogue, but tends to overdo the slick, ripe repartee as well as imposing on his characters a variety of fashionable perversions. As a study of a certain strata of society, then, the film lacks a strong centre and a firm point of view - one is never quite sure how seriously the parody of the officer code is intended, especially in the ambiguous, obligatorily moral ending.

Judged as a thriller, it is more successful: the two big set-pieces (the army camp robbery and the raid itself) are quite skilfully put together, although the former suffers from an overdose of tired Army humour. The handling of these scenes and the extensive location shooting suggest that, for Basil Dearden, the film's interest (and challenge) was mainly a technical one. In any case, it is his sharpest, most alive film for several years with rather less of his customary, mechanical shock-cutting. The players, on the other hand, are often forced by the script's limitations to fall back on familiar mannerisms - Jack Hawkins is altogether too smooth and heavy and Nigel Patrick's oily bounder brings no revelation. Roger Livesey has some dry moments as a spurious officer doing the rounds whilst Robert Coote's drunken intervention enlivens the somewhat anti-climactic climax.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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