Monday, February 07, 2011

Film Review--The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Our next installment in Criterion's Eclipse Series, Basil Dearden's London Underground, is the film I assumed I would like best, based solely on my affinity for the genre. The League of Gentlemen is a good film, and more pure fun than, Sapphire, the previous film in the collection, but it's a far less artful film with a less striking message than Dearden's breakthrough.

The League of Gentlemen is a much more straightforward film than the previous entry and, while it still carries a message, this message is neither as harsh nor as blatantly set forth. It doesn't make it less important, but this film would surely be easier to stomach for audiences than the racial indictment of Sapphire. Here, we have a Colonel Hyde (Jack Hawkins), an aging career military man who has been deemed redundant and, thus, forced into retirement. This is galling to a man who has given his entire life in service for his country, and he won't be satisfied until he has severance. To take what he is owed, he hatches a two-tiered scheme that will humiliate the military and make him rich, all at the same time.

Hyde can't do it alone, however, so he puts together a list of top shelf former military men, each selected for a particular talent. Luckily, these men are played with zeal by some fantastic talent, including Richard Attenborough as a weird mechanic, Nigel Patrick (in a much different role than the previous film) as an aristocratic boor, and Roger Livesey as a conman disguised as a priest. To them, Hyde details his plan. First, they'll infiltrate the nearby military base, steal a cache of weapons, and make sure the IRA gets blamed. With that done, they'll rob a bank. Split equally amongst each conspirator, it'll amount to around a hundred thousand pounds, enough to set them up for life and repay each for a life destroyed by the military bureaucracy they gave their souls for.

The League of Gentlemen is very simple. We're introduced to the characters, on a very skeletal level and presented with the heist. Once everything's in place, we get our dual capers and a finish. As standard heist films go, it's a fine piece of work, but nothing groundbreaking. My expectations may have been higher for this than Sapphire, but there are many reasons why it doesn't work as well. This picture is greatly helped by the performances, all of which are quite good. It's humorous, taking more lighthearted stabs at the military than I anticipated it would, but it's a little too chummy for its own good and loses much of the impact of its message.

Whenever asked about the political motivations behind his films, Dearden would always demure, saying that he wasn't trying to make any waves, yet at the same time decrying the issue at hand. This kind of wishy-washy behavior is most evident on screen in this film. Certainly, Dearden makes a statement about displaced veterans and what their role in the world is after the skills they've been trained for no longer have relevance. It's so thickly masked in the comic heist hijinx, though, that the message has little help in being brought to the audience. Maybe that was his intention or maybe he just didn't feel as strongly about this as he did about other things that we have already seen and will see later, but The League of Gentlemen is too light to be taken seriously.

That leaves with the heist. It's no Rififi, but it's a tense and fun pair of crimes that fit well into the genre. In black and white instead of Sapphire's color tones, Dearden shoots the London streets with a noir feel, accentuating the monolithic structures and making them feel like repressive tools of government. The heists are well-filmed, again a little too jokey for my tastes, but nicely put together. It's a missed opportunity, but the only really strong complaint I have is in the ending, which is very poorly drawn and a clear "crime doesn't pay" tack-on. It leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, but it doesn't kill what Dearden has built: a strongly written and well performed crime film with some cool imagery, whose only crime is stopping short on a message that may not have been all that important to the director in the first place. The League of Gentlemen is a good film, better than I've made it sound. The performances are great and the story is pretty strong; I'm not a big fan of the tone, but it's still worth watching.

Next, we find ourselves back on message street in Victim, the best film in this collection.