The League of Gentlemen: Special Edition Review
No, this is nothing to do with the inhabitants of Royston Vasey, and nothing to do with leagues of either ordinary or extraordinary gentlemen; this is the original gathering, whose name has been much borrowed. Imagine a 1950's British, stiff-upper-lipped, Marquess of Queensberry rules version of Reservoir Dogs, and you've got the general idea. Instead of Mr. White and Mr. Pink, thin ties and shades, it's Mr. Lexy and Bunny Warren, natty pinstripes and phoney dog collars - but an essentially similar plot.
Bitter ex-army Lt. Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) uses his insider knowledge to recruit a similarly disenfranchised crew of seven men, each with a stain on his past and a special skill. They are initially lured with wads of fivers, cut in half, the other halves to be given if they attend a dinner; then the real objective is unveiled - a daring and sophisticated million pound bank robbery. But to be successful, everything must be executed with the finest military precision.
The League of Gentlemen is a classic ensemble movie, and the casting of British character actors of the day is finely done, exploiting their established types. So Jack Hawkins is the solid and disciplined leader of men; Nigel Patrick the debonair man-about-town; Bryan Forbes the smoothie; Terence Alexander the cuckolded loser; and Richard Attenborough the unreliable spiv. A great deal of male-bonding takes place when the gang move in to Hyde's house to prepare, and the feel becomes more like that of a war movie - or a prisoner of war movie - than a crime piece. In one sequence, the ringleaders impersonate army officers as part of a plan to raid a camp for arms, with Roger Livesley making a terrific blimpish brigadier. It all points the way towards capers such as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, where the cement of camaraderie is the most important weapon in the mission, and the meat of the viewing experience.
Nearly half a century on, the film has a piquant period feel, and with its extensive street locations, it's a vintage car spotters' delight. There's a 'racy' scene, involving a young Nanette Newman in a bubble bath, on the phone to her lover, and some laughable references to homosexuality - one character (Kieron Moore) is the object of scorn and blackmail, though he doesn't look the part at all; and in a quick cameo appearance we're treated to a ridiculously camp Oliver Reed!
Despite the inevitable datedness, the film does stands up well, and this is due to the bravura direction of Basil Dearden as much as the superb ensemble acting. One of the better directors of the day, Dearden had a string of good work behind him, including the lion's share of the co-directing on Dead of Night, and the 50's favourite, The Blue Lamp, precursor of the TV series Dixon of Dock Green. He handles the action sequences deftly, gradually building up the tension towards the elaborate robbery climax, where our chaps become awesome figures, emerging from smoke with gas masks and machine guns. Everything is underscored by rousing music, which places sympathy firmly with the League, and emphasizes the sense of military derring-do rather than the darker shades of criminal wrongdoing. Inevitably, such a film must end with a 'crime-doesn't-pay' message, and by putting tongue firmly in cheek, Dearden pulls it off wonderfully, segueing into light comedy, with shades of The Lavender Hill Mob and other Ealing gems.
Presented in anamorphic 16:9, the film look absolutely great, with no apparent flaws. The black and white print has perfect contrast and grading, with rich shadows and bright highlights. Network releases of old films tend to be a bit hit and miss, but this is their best transfer I've seen. The mono soundtrack is excellent too - crisp, clear and a nice balance throughout.
The film comes with an audio commentary from Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman, which is very chatty and full of insider reminiscences. Forbes wrote the screenplay, and along with Dearden and Attenborough he was part of the indy production company, Allied Film Makers, that made the picture. Its budget was £172,000, and it was very successful, reaping huge profits for Rank, its backer and distributor. So it was very much a homegrown blockbuster of its day.
Also included is a stills gallery and a 1992 South Bank Show on Richard Attenborough, presented in 4:3 ratio. The bulk of this documentary deals with the making of Gandhi and Chaplin, showing Attenborough, arm in arm with Steven Spielberg, as the benign paterfamilias of recent times, a character that's light years away from the working-class, wide-boy and sometimes cowardly roles that the young actor customarily played, and to which cannon The League of Gentlemen's Lexy belongs. The film and the role aren't even mentioned, but then of course it's the kind of extra we expect from Network, who have ITV's archives at their disposal, and it remains an interesting and personal portrait of an exceptional man of the movies.