Anyone here looking for a review of the well known British sketch group The League of Gentlemen will sadly come away disappointed as this has nothing to do with them. But whilst I’m a huge fan of their work this is almost as good, and deserves it’s reputation as one of the best British films of the 1960s, even if it’s not as well known as it should be.
Now Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, The Getaway et al may be deemed classic heist movies, but this is the great-grandfather of them all. Polite, charming but ruthlessly efficient, The League of Gentlemen proves that a heist movie doesn’t have to be bloody and/or shocking to be thrilling. It begins with a mysterious figure, Colonel Hyde, inviting seven men to lunch, who all share a major common trait – they are ex-military who have since been disgraced. All also feel that they have been let down by the British Army, and struggle to live in peace time, so it doesn’t take that much persuasion before Hyde has enlisted them in his plan to rob a bank.
All of the cast are simply wonderful, from Jack Hawkins’ elegant Colonel Hyde to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’s Roger Livesey’s corrupted Mycroft, and even Bergerac’s Terence Alexander turns in a surprisingly touching performance as Rupert, a cuckolded husband whose pessimism fits in with the ending perfectly. Richard Attenborough’s also on top form, as you might expect from the great man, and the characters are explored in much more depth than is usual for this type of movie, and by the end you truly care for all of them.
Whilst at times it may seem a tad innocent when compared to today’s heist movies, the sharp, intelligent dialogue makes sure that interest never falters. Take for instance Hyde’s plan to break in to a military base, steal weapons and then blame it on the IRA: “We shall have to provide the authorities with a scapegoat. In this case I’m relying on the British character. We British will always give the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, or even the Egyptians the benefit of the doubt. But never the Irish….the IRA will get the credit, and the blame.” It’s refreshing for a film of it’s time to be so honest, and with each line delivered in such an eloquent manner, with the script being smart and snappy throughout.
Whilst strictly not an out and out comedy there’s large amount of humour to be found in the film, from Hyde showing a slide of a scantily dressed lady whilst explaining the robbery plan, to the daily banter between the men, it’s light and fresh enough to never get too downbeat. Close to the end of the movie the robbery is completed with military precision, exactly timed and without a hitch. No one is hurt, and if anyone had gone on a Mr Blonde style massacre, no doubt Hyde would have shot them instantly. In fact the only mistake made (which I won’t reveal here) is so minute an error that it only increases the sympathy you will have for the League.
It’s rare to find such a gem of a film, especially in a period of uncertainty for British film when it often rejected any semblance of reality just before the kitchen sink dramas of the mid-sixties began being made. And it’s just a shame that this was created back in the days where crime never paid, as seeing Hyde and co sunning themselves on the beach would have been a delight. But hey, at least it leaves the door open for a sequel!