The Top Five ‘Caper’ Movies (Part One): ‘The League of Gentlemen’

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‘Caper’ movies are a sub-genre of the crime film that in the past 50 years has created some highly entertaining, memorable pieces of cinema. Each of the classics of the sub-genre seems to follow a simple set of just three rules:

  1. The ensemble cast, led by a strong leading actor, play a group of down-on-their-luck men (they are either criminals, ex-cons, reluctant soldiers, or unemployed) who band together to carry out a clever and audacious heist.
  1. The audience throughout cheers for the ‘criminals’ because we know they are not REALLY ‘bad guys’ and, until the very final moments, we hope that they will get away with the crime (any maybe afterwards).
  1. The script is as clever as the cinematic crime itself and has a strong element of black – and usually quite socially subversive – humor.

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The top five are probably The League of Gentlemen (1960), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), The Italian Job (1969), Three Kings (1999) and Buffalo Soldiers (2001), although it is not easy to rank them in any special order because all are classic ‘capers’.

There is, possibly, a sixth, which I have not yet seen because it is difficult to track down: the 1979 British feature film The Sewers of Gold, based on an actual bank robbery in France (AKA Dirty Money or The Great Riviera Bank Robbery). And if SOS readers know of any more to add to the list I would love to hear about them.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Director: Basil Dearden

Writers: John Boland (novel); Bryan Forbes (screenplay)

NOT to be confused with either the British BBC Two comedy series of the same title (1999–2002) or the terrible Hollywood movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), The League of Gentlemen is a classic movie of 1960, now only reshown on public-channel televison, at least in Australia, well after midnight. Personally, I never tire of watching it.

It has the great character actor Jack Hawkins playing very much to ‘type’ as an unemployed ex-British Army colonel who recruits a motley band of other (all disgraced) WW2 ex-officers to carry out a daring bank raid.

Hawkins (The Cruel Sea, 1953; The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957) said it was his favorite of all of his films. And you can see why. He is perfect in the role and he dominates the movie.

From the moment in the opening scene in which he emerges from a sewer manhole in the street, dressed immaculately in a dinner jacket, and gets into a Rolls Royce, you know that this movie has an intelligent script – and one which must surely have influenced James Cameron in the opening sequence of his True Lies (1994).

Then, seeing a painting of a woman in the home of the colonel, another character asks if she was his wife and if she has died. ‘No, I regret to say the bitch is still going strong’ is his reply. Hard to imagine it now, but quite a racy bit of dialogue for a British film of 1960.

The film also touches on the then-taboo topic of homosexuality – in both serious and comic ways. The most ‘macho’ of all the men of the colonel’s gang of bank-robbers (Kieron Moore) is portrayed as presumably homosexual. Again, this is surprisingly daring because this was a year before Sir Dirk Bogarde played the first openly homosexual character in a British film, Victim (1961). It also features a young Oliver Reed in a tiny, cameo role – and playing very much against his later ‘type’ – as an outrageously ‘camp’ theatrical dancer, rehearsing for a pantomime, Babes in the Wood.

This film is in black and white and its ‘look’ may now seem hopelessly old-fashioned since it has none of the ‘coolness’ or style of American film noir, just the rather ‘drab’, perhaps uniquely British realism of the 1950s. And all the ‘technology’ used by the ‘villains’ is very low-tech: WW2 army surplus gas-masks and Sten guns. But it is a classic ‘caper’ movie that I hope other film buffs may perhaps seek out and watch.

Roger Bourke

 

 

2 Comments
  1. Dan Geiser says

    Does Rififi count as a caper film?

    1. Roger Bourke says

      Thanks, Dan. Good question. The short answer is that I don’t know because I haven’t seen it, but I certainly will now. Having just watched the trailer and read about it online my first impression is that it is more ‘film noir’ than ‘caper’. But let me get back you on this.

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