The Good Die Young

A British noir from 1954 directed by Lewis Gilbert, The Good Die Young is a dual-format release from the BFI.

Four men in a car. Four men with guns. Strangers to each other until quite recently. How did they get there?

An offscreen narrator sets the scene, which we don’t return to until over an hour later. (After the beginning, we don’t hear from the narrator until the very end of the film.) We move back to find out who these men are, one at a time. Joe (Richard Basehart) is an American ex-soldier aiming to return to the USA with his English flight attendant wife Mary (Joan Collins), but hasn’t reckoned with her dominating mother (Freda Jackson). Eddie (John Ireland), also American, has discovered that his actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair with the star of her latest film. Mike (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who takes place in one last fight to earn £1000 in savings. But fighting with a broken hand causes him to lose it later, and the savings disappear when his wife Angela (Rene Ray) uses them to bail out her brother David (James Kenney). And there’s Miles Ravenscroft (Laurence Harvey), known as “Rave”, living off his wealthy father (Robert Morley) who is no longer willing to finance his lifestyle. We see how these four men come together and how Rave encourages them to take place in armed robbery. But all does not go to plan.

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The Good Die Young is a British noir, made in 1954. Director Lewis Gilbert wrote the script with his regular collaborator Vernon Harris, based on a novel by Richard Macauley. The novel was set in America, while the film relocates the story to London, though the film’s producers brought in three Americans to the cast. The novel involved a bank robbery, but as no British bank would collaborate in having itself robbed on screen, a post office was used instead.

Gilbert and Harris were the writers of a film made two years earlier (three features earlier for Gilbert as a director) and recently released by the BFI on disc, the once-controversial Cosh Boy. That had been Britain’s second film to be given a X certificate (then restricting audiences to those sixteen and over), but now shows its age somewhat and comes over as more than a little paternalistic. The Good Die Young, despite only carrying an A certificate (allowing under-sixteens accompanied by an adult), now seems the much tougher film, especially in its longer export version, of which more below. (The two leads of Cosh Boy, Kenney and Collins, appear in The Good Die Young in supporting roles.)

For much of his lengthy career, Gilbert has been a fine craftsman but generally self-effacing as a director. That’s the case here, though there are the occasional flourish, such as the use of Dutch angles in a couple of key scenes. Generally Gilbert and his DP Jack Asher don’t go in for the heavy chiaroscuro of many of the classic American noirs, but the black and white cinematography does aid the film’s realism, as does the mixture of studio sets and locations. Train buffs will appreciate some shots of Waterloo Station as it was sixty-seven years ago. Gilbert gets the best out of a strong cast.

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Seventy-two minutes in, Rave and the other three men are sitting in a pub and makes a speech to persuade them to join in his criminal venture, telling how men like them, not killed in the War, came home to find themselves redundant. The good die young, he says. But British audiences didn’t get to hear this as the film’s producers, or the censor, or both, thought that the public wouldn’t wear such anti-establishment sentiments. So these words were only heard in the export version of the film, two minutes longer. This version has four scenes which were extended from the British theatrical cut. At ninety minutes, Joe refers to Rave’s earlier speech and goes on to tell him how aware he’s become of Rave’s true nature. The other two additions have nothing to do with anything anti-establishment. A scene between Rave and Eve (Margaret Leighton, who went on to marry Harvey, unhappily by all accounts) twenty-six minutes in has some additional dialogue. Finally, the scene at sixty-six minutes where Eddie confronts Denise with her infidelity and throws her into the bath goes on longer in the export cut and includes shots of him holding her head underwater.

The Good Die Young opened on 4 March 1954 at the Odeon Leicester Square in London, advertised as being with “ten famous stars”. Reviews then tended towards the indifferent, but the film does stand up well nowadays, and is a worthy entry as a British crime film.

The Disc

The Good Die Young is a dual-format release from the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray was supplied for review. The Good Die Young carries a PG rating, but the 12 for the overall package is due to some racist dialogue in the intertitles of When Giants Fought. The other extras are documentaries which have been exempted from BBFC certification, but Midnight Taxi and Under Night Streets both carried U certificates on their original releases and would be unlikely to receive different today.

A product of the new-fangled widescreen era, shot in black and white 35mm, The Good Die Young is transferred in a ratio of 1.66:1. The transfer is derived from a 2K scan of the original negative, with the extended scenes in the export cut derived from a duplicate negative. You choose which version you want to play from the menu, and seamless branching does the rest. The transfer looks fine, with natural grain and contrast looking accurate.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Generally it’s clear and well balanced, though there’s a noticeable change of ambience with the extended scenes from the export cut. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing, and I didn’t spot any errors in them.

Of the five extras on the disc, three are short films which aren’t related to the main feature except tangentially, as is the way with many BFI releases. Mike is a boxer (and Stanley Baker was himself an ex-boxer), so we have When Giants Fought (30:55). This silent film from 1926 takes us back to 1845, and a retelling in a pub of the real-life bare-knuckled fight between Tom Cribb and former slave Tom Molyneux, when the latter was cheated of his victory. Cribb became a national hero and a pub in Leicester Square is still named after him.

In Midnight Taxi (17:15), from 1946, cabbie Hay Petrie talks about London at the dead of night, after pubs, cinemas and theatres shut and the last Tube trains have gone, but there is plenty of life still to be seen, with Fleet Street printing the next day’s newspapers, post offices sorting out the mail delivery and so on. Under Night Streets (19:37), from 1958, goes further, taking us into the Underground in the four hours between the last trains and the first ones the next day, cleaning and repairing what needs to be attended to. All three films are presented in 4:3, which is undoubtedly correct for the first two, but I’m less convinced it is for the third. It was a 35mm-shot (by David Watkin, before he began his feature career) film made for commercial cinema distribution in the widescreen era and I can confirm that it zooms quite nicely to 16:9 without undue cropping, so would seem to be intended for a wider ratio.

The next extra is Not Like Any Other Director (31:09), an extract from a 1995 on-stage interview at the National Film Theatre with Lewis Gilbert by Anthony Sloman and introduced by Michael Caine. This is a career overview with many good anecdotes by Gilbert, particularly on how he had to deal with Orson Welles. Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (11:06).

The BFI’s booklet, available with the first pressing only, runs to twenty-four pages. It begins with “’An Unpleasant Slice of British Life’”, an overview (spoiler warning) by Dr Josephine Botting on the main feature, which covers the bases of the film’s production and themes. It’s followed by a profile of Gilbert by Peter Rankin, full film credits, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.


Updated: Jul 28, 2020

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