ROBBERY. An Oakhurst Ltd. Production, distributed by Paramount Pictures and Embassy Pictures, United Kingdom, 1967. 1 hour 54 minutes. Aspect ratio 1.66:1
Director: Peter Yates, Screenplay: Edward Boyd, Peter Yates, George Markstein, based on a treatment by Gerald Wilson, Music: Johnny Keating, Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe, Art Director: Michael Seymour, Editor: Reginald Beck, Executive Producer: Joseph E. Levine, Producers: Stanley Baker, Michael Deeley. CAST: Stanley Baker (Paul Clifton), Joanna Pettet (Kate Clifton), James Booth (Inspector Langdon), Barry Foster (Frank), Frank Finlay (Robinson), William Marlowe (Dave Aitken), George Sewell (Ben), Clinton Greyn (Jack), Glynn Edwards (Squad Chief), Rachel Herbert (Schoolteacher), Robert Powell (Young train conductor).
Previously available only in a lackluster pan-and-scan DVD, Robbery, one of the iconic '60s caper film, often paired in discussion with The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine, receives a full special edition treatment from Studio Canal and Network's British Film series. The film unspools the yarn regarding one of England's most sensational crimes in modern history, the stealing of £2.6 million in used notes from the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train, in August 1963. The gang of thieves, fifteen of them, carried out the heist with a startling efficiency resembling a military operation. The act grabbed public imagination like few other capers: so much so that, the Brits have taken to simply refer to it as "The Great Train Robbery." Dozens of books based on investigative journalism, autobiographies and confessionals of the ringleaders of the gang, biographies of the policemen involved in the case, and of course numerous semi-fictionalized accounts have sprung up since 1963 (subsequent arrests, trials and sentencing of the major culprits literally spun off more stories for the insatiable public).
Not surprisingly, cinematic and TV adaptations soon followed. The British public has not lost interest in the case even in the new century, as evidenced by the 2012 airing of ITV's mini-series Mrs. Briggs, which tells the story of the Great Train Robbery from the viewpoint of the wife of one of the ringleaders. Yet, the very first theatrical film to present an account of the crime was not made in England: it was a black-and-white German production titled Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse (1966), originally a TV show in three installments. In the end, 1967's Robbery, put together by the star Baker's Oakhust Productions, with the help from the American producer Joseph Levine, and helmed by the young TV director Peter Yates, coming off from a Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (1963), is generally considered the definitive, if significantly fictionalized, cinematic rendition of the whole event.
Robbery seems to have received somewhat cold shoulders from the mainstream critics upon its release. One reason seems to be what they perceived as inconsistency in its tone: the film mostly behaves like a semi-documentarian, British equivalent of The French Connection (1971), with totally convincing location shootings in parking lots, soccer stadiums, city parks, etc., but in other ways is strikingly stylized, very much a product of late '60s. Mostly, though, it just smacks of clever and efficient filmmaking: Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) renders even the gritty elements of the film fine polish, and the editor Reginald Beck (The Romantic Englishwoman) endows the proceedings with a smart, kinetic rhythm. Director Yates stages the opening diamond heist by Clifton's (Baker) gang (Barry Foster, William Marlowe and Clinton Greyn as the reckless driver) with a supremely adrenalin-pumping car chase that eventually involves a group of unsuspecting schoolchildren. Supposedly it was this sequence that convinced Steve McQueen to hire Yates for Bullitt (1968), and it is every bit as exciting and dangerous-looking as the San Francisco car chases in the latter. (It is also capped by one of the best police line-up sequences I have ever seen, with a great participation by Rachel Herbert as the understandably piqued schoolteacher)
The train robbery itself is reconstructed with meticulous attention to detail, bringing in as many authentic locations as possible (including a railway bridge in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire where the actual heist took place). Only the mail carrier train was apparently a mock-up that did not look like the real thing (the banks cooperated with the production company but the post office allegedly refused). Production quality is nothing less than handsome at all times. It is true that Robbery does not exude the anarchic energy of The Italian Job, but the whole process of the crime, as shown in the film, still generates enough gripping suspense to keep the viewers attentive through its nearly two-hour running time. The movie does not make the mistake of portraying police as pompous, incompetent fools, either.
The cast is uniformly excellent, on both sides of the law. Barry Foster (his flashiest role was perhaps in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy), William Marlowe and George Sewell (most memorable for me from the TV series UFO) all leave strong impressions: Foster and Sewell even share an iconic moment of burning a pound note to light their cigarettes (Did John Woo get the inspiration for a similar image in Better Tomorrow from this film?). Frank Finlay is a mousy embezzler who is reluctantly roped in by the gang due to his specialized knowledge about the financial ends of the job. Hangdog-faced James Booth (Zulu) is also nicely cast as a Columbo-like detective who doggedly pursues minute clues, eventually zeroing in on the gang's hideout. A harried young conductor of the Royal Mail train is played by Robert Powell, the subsequent star of more than one cult genre films (The Survivor, Harlequin) as well as Jesus of Nazareth in the Franco Zeffirelli-directed mini-series.
Curiously, the producer-star Baker does not seem fully committed to his role as the criminal mastermind. His Paul Clifton (This was an invented personage, originally set to be played by an American actor: no equivalent of such a "master planner" existed among the real gang) is the only character with enough time devoted to his private life and psychological dynamics. Yet his interaction with the beautiful wife, Kate (Joanna Pettet, Night of the Generals), is the only part of the movie that feels clichéd. We get little insight about why Clifton, despite enjoying his life in a posh apartment with a loving wife, is driven to commit bigger and more outlandish crimes. He is more a collection of brooding gestures than a real character. Had the character of Clifton been fleshed out, the film's seemingly open ending might have made more sense as a statement with some point about the British society or politics (but then again, the ending may well have meant to be no more than a balloon floated to signal a possible sequel).
Not quite a classic on the same level as, say, Ipcress File or Zulu, Robbery is still an exceedingly well-executed piece of cinematic entertainment, brimming with professionalism and cool attitudes: it is definitely not a lugubrious exercise in kitchen-sink realism as a few other reviews inexplicably seem to suggest.
Blu Ray Presentation:
Studio Canal/Network, The British Film Series. Region B. Video: 1080p HD, Aspect ratio 1.66:1, Audio: English Mono. Subtitles: English. Supplements: An interview with Producer Michael Deeley, Cinema: Stanley Baker documentary, German film The Great Train Robbery, Waiting for the Signal: The Making of Robbery, Behind-the-scene footage, Image gallery, Promotional materials (in pdf), Liner notes by film historian Sheldon Hall. Street date: August 31, 2015.
Network remastered the film, scanning it from the 35mm original negative in 2K resolution, color-correcting and eliminating dirt and damage in the process (and, according to the technical notes, reinstating a ten second scene missing from the previous DVD version). To my eyes the grain structure and stability of the image all look excellent. Only in one device that I have played the disc (a laptop) the skin tone was somewhat inclined to ruddy red, but on a big screen TV via Momitsu Region-Free player everything looks natural and sharp as a tack. It is doubtful that Robbery would come off any better than this in a revival-house screening today, even with a brand new print. And not surprisingly, seeing the film in such a beautiful condition allows us to appreciate all the technical prowess and cool stylistic touches that went into its making. Audio is mono but Johnny Keating's jazzy score comes off very well. It is possible that some of the dialogues might have been tinkered to make the film "US-friendly." I certainly expected much heavier regional or Cockney accents among at least a few of the players (either way, there are English subtitles).
The supplements are quite good, too. The making-of documentary-- that collects together the surviving staff and cast members, including writer George Markstein, actor Glynn Edwards and others, for their reminiscences-- is a bit on the long side but chock full of funny and informative anecdotes nonetheless. The Stanley Baker docu is a minimally edited series of interview footage, surprisingly transferred in HD, of a 1972 one he gave at Granada Television. Some might consider the brooding, menacing-looking Baker less interesting than his compatriot Michael Caine, but I find him fascinating and he surely made more than just a handful of powerful and meaningful films in a career cut tragically short. Perhaps the most unexpected extra is the inclusion of the entire German film The Great Train Robbery, the truncated, export theatrical version of Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse (this one unfortunately is not in HD). I have sampled a few segments, but found it frankly tough going: it is rather talky and the English dubbing is for some reason extremely distracting. Of course, it is possible that I happened to hit upon the excruciatingly boring parts. The Michael Deeley interview also goes into a lot of topics of interest for the fans of the British genre cinema.
Finally, the insert essay by Sheldon Hall eschews the usual critic's opinionizing and concentrates on the history of production of the film. He painstakingly uncovers many relevant facts about Robbery, including a terribly frustrating one that, despite doing excellent businesses across the Atlantic, it ultimately lost money, due to the convoluted distribution deal (the same fate apparently befell The Italian Job, by the way, also made through Baker's Oakhurst Productions). Overall, Hall does an excellent job of rehabilitating Robbery's reputation, without claiming it is a lost masterpiece on the level of Citizen Kane, and properly situating it in the historical context of evolution (and decline) of the British commercial cinema.
While the movie is certainly not perfect, the Robbery Blu Ray edition is in my view one of Network's best-produced discs and I highly recommend it to any fans of the British genre cinema, or simply a well-made caper film.