The kind of film for which cold and damp February afternoons were invented, Basil Dearden’s endearing and breezy crime caper is an entirely satisfying work that, in modern parlance, pushes all the right buttons. For those who think that British film history begins and ends with Danny Boyle and drawing room comedies, The League of Gentlemen (1959) is a timely reminder of the inventiveness and charm that typified British cinema culture in the early 1960s, providing a tutorial in clever plotting and sturdy acting along the way.
Jack Hawkins is a recently discharged army colonel who concocts a plan to rob a City bank. With the help of seven other ex-military miscreants (all ‘with a guilty past and a hopeless future’), they spend the next hour and a half meticulously planning and plotting their scheme. Included in this ragbag include Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick and Roger Livesey – all famous faces – who along with the other ‘gentlemen’ hope that their winnings will improve their love life, alleviate their boredom, and generally get one over on the army.
Shot in wonderfully defined monochrome, Dearden’s sure-handed direction is ably reinforced by Bryan Forbes’s screenplay. Adapted from John Boland’s novel, Forbes cleverly captures the zeitgeist, alternating between military-speak and crime patois, while all the time giving different characters (including himself, as piano-playing toy-boy Porthill) a sense of breadth and depth. Throughout, Forbes and Dearden use the end of the war as metaphor for the kind of changes Britain is going through: in one scene, there might be a room full of chandeliers and roulette tables; in another Nanette Newman lying in a bath whispering sexual innuendo. The film slowburns throughout, but really comes to life in the climactic bank heist, and before that, a daring rade on a Dorset military barracks. This latter scene in particular includes social comment, Carry On-esque high-jinks and a developing sense of tension. Philip Green’s music is crucial throughout, combining a patriotic brass score with an insouciant up-tempo beat.
The actors carry the film with charisma. There is the usual schematic division of roles – one to cut the wires, one to make the smoke bombs, one to drive the getaway van – alongside a sense that all of these men are seeking a sense of excitement denied them in the real world. Early on Hawkins introduces them to each other (and to us) by listing their previous misdemeanours, moving round the table in a manner reminiscent of Kobayashi in an identical scene in The Usual Suspects (1995). Indeed, to watch the film is to recognise several sequences delicately ‘homaged’ in later works. In the opening sequence, a tuxedoed man climbs out of a drain, a scene similar to Connery’s first appearance in Goldfinger (1964). Elsewhere, the final getaway foreshadows a similar event in The Italian Job (1969), and perhaps even Steven Soderbergh saw the film while prepping Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – both films share a similar vibe, with their charismatic ringleaders, daring plans and mis-matched criminals.
The only unsatisfying element is the denouement, but perhaps late 1950s Britain was unprepared to countenance the theft of all that money at a time of national austerity. The audacity of the plan almost requires a happy ending, but the final touch, of all the lags handcuffed together in the back of a Black Maria, hints at the possibility of some new plan being executed. And as for that boy who helpfully collects car number plates… well, it’s undoubtedly true that in the Big Heist Film, it’s always the small, insubstantial detail that sends the crooks to jail.