This fuel-injected thriller was an early effort by Derek Bickerton, who subsequently established himself as an eminent linguist. Set in Birmingham, it tells the story of a heist that goes wrong – but then, in fiction, don’t they always? A couple of years later it was turned into a tight little movie by the writer-director team of George Baxt and Sidney Hayers, relocating the action to Newcastle with a terrific cast headed by Michael Craig, Françoise Prévost, Tom Bell and the late Billie Whitelaw.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom.
“You’d have to do your nut to start knocking flippin’ armoured cars around, I’ll tell you, mate.”
In British books, on stage and in film, the mid to late 1950s was the era of the ‘angry young man’ – the working class anti-heroes of Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, John Braine, David Storey, Keith Waterhouse, etc. – who, as often as not, came from the North. Bickerton’s main innovation with this novel was to take the the heist plot, already familiar through the works of such American crime writers as WR Burnett and Lionel White, and relocate it to the Midlands. It may not seem like a big deal now, but at the time it was fascinating and really unusual to have a well-known scenario replayed, as it is here, with a distinctive brummie argot.
The basics of the story are after all very familiar: a group of men plan a robbery that does not quite go according to plan, death follows and the group falls apart, in part due to the role played by a femme fatale. Well, actually, there are two of them, one a fur-collared avenging angel straight out of the pages of a Cornell Woolrich story, which really gives this tale an unexpected feminine trajectory as it is the two women, the wives of men involved in the robbery, who control the narrative by the end:
“I’m going to get them!” she screamed. “They won’t get away with this. I’ll kill them!”
On the masculine side of things (sic), this is a book that has a positive obsession with motor cars, which fits in very nicely as this was at a time when the new motorways were opening up pathways to the country following the final end to the austerity imposed by the war. Indeed, we get references, right from the opening paragraph, to nearly a dozen different models including the Ford Zephyr and Ford Popular, a Land Rover, a Jowett Javelin, a Commer Van, a Daimler, a Bentley, a Vauxhall Bedford, an Austin, a Jaguar etc. – but then, this is a story about knocking off a factory called ‘Kneale’s Motor Bodies.’
“When you’ve got some money, show it me. I don’t want to hear about it. Just show it me. i want to see it, feel it, smell it – spend it – d’you understand? SPEND IT!”
Dennis Pearson, an impecunious and underachieving accountant for Kneale’s, gets caught up in a plan by Alpha male Johnny Mellor to rob its wages as he is desperate for money so as not to lose Katie, his beautiful and embittered wife. Fed up with his weak plans to make more of his life, she now just wants the cash and doesn’t want to hear about whatever scheme he will doubtless fail with next. Then Dennis introduces her to Johnny, as an excuse talk about the robbery without attracting suspicion, and the two find an instant, animalistic rapport …
Dennis initially panics when the factory suddenly decides to employ an armoured car service to transport its wages – but this won’t stop Johnny, who has been planning the job for months. They decide to take on the van by ramming it on either side at top speed, leading to several deaths (six by the end) and a surprising switch in the narrative when Jacqueline (Jackie), the widow of security van driver Harry Parker, killed in the crash, goes out for revenge.
“If it didn’t happen in London it didn’t happen.”
The book takes a well-worn plot and characters and brings something new to it, through its Birmingham setting (still a novelty at the time) and the switch to the revenge storyline, making women much more prominent than usual in this kind of story. Told at tremendous speed (there are 150 pages, broken up into 55 chapters), it was perhaps inevitable that the movie rights would be snapped up. And indeed it made the basis for a bleak, economical, tightly controlled and truly terrific movie released in 1961, one that deserves to be much better known – and which, incidentally, was also released in some markets, including the USA, with the more hardboiled title, I Promised to Pay,
The film proves generally very faithful to the book in terms of plot and character, though screenwriter George Baxt adds a lot of himself through some typically barbed dialogue, adding a sense of humour that the novel completely lacks. He also brings forward the relationship between Katie and Johnny; and does great job of building up the role of Jackie and her pursuit of Katie and Dennis, again further emphasising the female dimension of the narrative. Top-billed Michael Craig, originally groomed as a replacement for smoothie Dirk Bogarde but clearly made of sterner stuff, is perhaps cast too obviously against type as Johnny but actually does a very solid job here, though the young and upcoming Tom Bell is much more obviously charismatic as ‘Blackie.’ As was so common at the time, exotic or overtly sexual women in British films were often played by Continental actresses – and in this case we get French thespian, Françoise Prévost. This doesn’t hurt the story as she is meant to be obviously outside of Dennis’ league and making her a ‘foreigner’ (in the book she is of Irish descent) makes this even clearer, though it has to be said, there is not much spark to her. This is especially obvious when compared with the pitch-perfect performance from Billie Whitelaw as Parker’s fiery wife Jackie, who goes on a one-woman revenge spree when her husband is killed in the robbery.
This is a really superbly made little film, making good use of locations around Newcastle, that is gripping from start to finish – you may have seen stories of heists and hardboiled criminals before (The Killing certainly springs to mind), and many of them will be a lot like this one in terms of the basic setup, but with its expert handling by director Sidney Hayers, fine cast and unusual locations, this makes for a dark, dour but always compelling thriller with a real edge.
For a really thorough look at the movie, you could do no better than heading to Colin’s review at Riding the High Country. I would then also suggest you also check out the entry over at British 60s Cinema, as well as Real Streets and The Novocastrian if you are interested in the locations used in Newcastle and what they look like today.
DVD Availability: The film is available on an excellent DVD in the UK offering a sharp and clean image in the correct widescreen ratio – there are no extras, which is a shame, but hardly a surprise for a modest budgeted genre film of this vintage. The at the picture quality is so exquisite is quite its own reward. The film is due to come out on Blu-ray from Studio Canal in Europe quite shortly (next month in fact) – sadly it’s somewhat overpriced, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist if they improve on an already terrific video master, though some extras would be really welcome for those of us thinking of double dipping!
Director: Sidney Hayers
Producer: Norman Priggen, Julian Wintle
Screenplay: George Baxt
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Jack Shampan
Music: Reg Owen
Cast: Michael Craig (Johnny Mellors), Françoise Prévost (Katie), Tom Bell (Blackie), Kenneth Griffiths (Monty), William Lucas (Dennis), Billie Whitelaw (Jackie), Barry Keegan (Bert), William Dexter (Harry), Glyn Houston (Frank)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘mode of transportation’ category: