Crooks in Cloisters Review
The sixties was a busy time for the British crime caper. Between Basil Dearden’s The League of Gentlemen in 1960 and the much-loved The Italian Job at the decade’s end, seemingly everyone was attempting to rekindle the magic of Ealing classics The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. The Carry On team were responsible for The Big Job, Norman Wisdom starred in There Was a Crooked Man, Terry-Thomas did likewise with Make Mine Mink and Peter Sellers cropped up in two of the better examples: Two-Way Stretch and The Wrong Arm of the Law. The Boulting brothers also got in on the act with Rotten to the Core, as did Michael Winner with The Jokers. Even the schoolgirls of St. Trinian’s contributed thanks to The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery. At the start of the year StudioCanal unearthed one of the harder to find titles, Go to Blazes, for its DVD premiere and now they’re doing much the same for 1963’s Crooks in Cloisters.
Unlike the typical British crime caper Crooks in Cloisters gets its heist out of the way during the opening minutes. As soon as the opening credits have finished our gang of comedic crims are immediately on the run, leaving behind only headlines of their latest exploit: “Smallest Ever Train Robbery” according to the front page of the Daily Mirror. The CID is on the case, led by Alister Williamson’s Superintendent Mungo, prompting the gang to hide out on an isolated Cornish island masquerading as an order of monks. Needless to say, they don’t take to a life of seclusion and self-sufficiency as well as they might. Barbara Windsor’s Bikini (sic) is more used to shoplifting and forgery than she is cooking, whilst Bernard Cribbins’ geezer-ish Squirts McGinty has to reign in his usual flash, brash behaviour. The monastery, as he puts it, is “just like the nick” - “You mean to say monks do bird all the time?”
That one line of dialogue sums up Crooks in Cloisters in a nutshell. Windsor, Cribbins and the rest (Melvyn Hayes, Davy Kaye, Gregoire Aslan and gang leader Ronald Fraser) are effectively in prison for the entire movie, unwittingly subjecting themselves to a form of rehabilitation as they slowly learn to put aside their old habits and lead more respectable lives. They still have some contact with the outside - allowing Wilfred Brambell to put in a guest appearance and for Hayes to romance a young Francesca Annis - though that never prevents the film from settling into a repetitive rut. Despite being in such a hurry to get to its Cornish island, screenwriters Mike Watts and T.J. Morrison don’t really have all that much to do once they get there. The structure is too episodic and those episodes too lightweight and predictable to maintain the viewer’s attention. It comes as no surprise to discover one scene revolving around Cribbins’ getting lecherous over a group of bikinied day-trippers or Barbara Windsor very almost exposing herself to members of the public.
Director Jeremy Summers does little to inject life into the plodding screenplay. Though he started out in features (including Tony Hancock vehicle The Punch and Judy Man) Summers soon settled into television, finding himself behind the camera on everything from Tenko to Hollyoaks. It’s fair to say that he was a better match with that medium as his efforts here are rather flat. Even with Technicolor and CinemaScope at his disposal (not to mention cinematographer Harry Waxman, the man behind Brighton Rock and The Wicker Man plus plenty of others) there seems to be little that sparks his interest. Instead we must rely on the good natured performances of his cast and, indeed, our own good nature to see the film through. The likes of Windsor, Cribbins and Brambell will no doubt entice some viewers, though I suspect few will find them enough. With so many sixties crime capers to sit alongside, Crooks in Cloisters cannot help but be one of the lesser examples.
Crooks in Cloisters makes its DVD debut in barebones form, with the only addition being optional English subtitles. Happily the original CinemaScope aspect ratio is present and correct, complete with anamorphic enhancement, though the presentation overall is more so-so than exceptional. Mostly free of wear and tear the image is still subject to edge enhancement and perhaps a little on the soft side. The soundtrack is in a similar state: mostly acceptable, but with the occasional cause for disappointment, especially when it tries to contend with Windsor’s shrillness. As a whole the film remains never less than watchable, just don’t expect anything above average.