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Older British genre movies, if I read them correctly, had a tendency not to let the Irish off the historical hook of disloyalty. The Launder & Gilliat thriller I See a Dark Stranger has mixed-up Irish lass Deborah Kerr doing spy work for the Nazis, just to spite the English. The same thing happens in the WW2 espionage thriller The Man Who Never Was: the key agent helping Hitler learn the D-Day secrets is an Irish rebel played by Stephen Boyd. 1960's The Day They Robbed the Bank of England looks at Irish rebellion in a slightly less critical light,. It has an exceptional cast and excellent direction from John Guillermin. It's not very well known over here despite being distributed by MGM. So expect a pleasant discovery.
Sort of a The Quiet Man of Irish Rebellion stories, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England sees an American come back to help out the old country. Architect Charles Norgate (Aldo Ray, never better) is enlisted to help a band of terrorists strike at the Crown with a major crime -- to steal as much of the nation's gold as they can. Norgate tries in vain to re-ignite a romance with his recruiter Iris Muldoon (Elizabeth Sellars of 55 Days at Peking), much to the disliking of the jealous Walsh (Kieron Moore of Crack in the World)). Norgate decides that the gold shipment wagons are too heavily guarded to rob, and conspiracy leader O'Shea (Hugh Griffith) feels that one wagon couldn't carry enough gold to harm England anyway. Norgate and burglar-sneak thief Cohoun (Joseph Tomelty) trick a museum curator (Miles Malleson) into getting access to the secret building plans for the B of E's gold vault, and Norgate initiates a friendship with Lt. Monty Fitch (Peter O'Toole), a leader of the Royal Guards assigned to the vault night and day. Norgate is about to give up when he meets 'The Tosher' Albert Sparrow (Albert Sharpe of Darby O'Gill and the Little People), who skulks around the waterfront scraping up what money he can from petty crime. Norgate tells The Tosher that he's looking for artifacts from the Roman era, and that he needs to get into the city's old abandoned drains and tunnels -- especially one that runs right underneath the Bank of England.
The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a good thriller with an interesting cast -- we simply like the way this unusual group of actors works together. Aldo Ray gets a chance to play against his usual tough guy persona -- Charles Norgate is a master planner and an expert at getting along well with people. He befriends both Albert Sharpe's amusing The Tosher and Peter O'Toole's guardsman. It's one of O'Toole's first pictures. He has the 'hail fellow well met' attitude down pat as he falls for Norgate's clever ruse. The screenplay happily goes not make Lt. Fitch into a total patsy. The actor went almost straight from this movie to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia; as he was dubbed in Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents of the same year, this role came at just the right time.
Giving the plot a decent love triangle is Elizabeth Sellars, who finally is given something to do other than stand around being gracious. Sellars was terrific in the old Hammer thriller Cloudburst but left that picture almost in the first reel. As her character Iris has already lost a man to 'the movement', some depth is given to the Irish troublemakers looking to throw a wrench into the works. This organization predates the IRA but already has its martyrs and grudges. Iris has the fire to get the robbery going but once the men are digging under the vault, it's too late to stop them.
As is often the case with the best caper films, the final stretch of the heist hinges on personal relationships and unforeseen events. One crook-patriot becomes greedy, and Norgate's loyalty to his comrades is tested when the meddling old Tosher wanders into the 'archeological site' and discovers that, just by accident, Norgate has indeed uncovered a real Roman artifact. Norgate expected The Tosheris to be concerned only with credit at the pub, but he turns out to appreciate the excitement of discovery.
This is yet another caper film of the late '50s with a special gimmick. Michael Crichton's much later The Great Train Robbery was special for taking place much further in the past, but 1901 is still quite a ways back. There are no electronic alarms or special, security devices, and gold bullion has to be carted around in ordinary wagons. Crucial plans for the vault are kept with the rest of the architect's work in a room commonly visited by the public, in an ordinary locked cabinet. It's a burglar's dream.
The technical aspects of the scheme are interesting as well. The burglars must trace the architect's plans by hand, as no camera existed to photocopy them. Unsure of the scale, Aldo Ray's Norgate counts the precise footsteps of the red-coated guards, to measure the distance of a hallway. It's too bad that O'Shea and Norgate can't access an atom bomb, like Auric Goldfinger in the James Bond movie. By making the gold in Fort Knox radioactive, Goldfinger's plan would have rendered it worthless without having to move it. The difficulty of moving large quantities of gold affects The Day They Robbed the Bank of England when one of the thieves gets greedy and overloads a standard wagon. Gold is so dense that one can't possibly fill up a truck (or wagon) beyond a certain weight load.
John Guillermin gives us a credible London circa 1901 and directs with a clean style that we saw before in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure and later in The Blue Max and The Bridge at Remagen. The Crown's underground vaults and vintage security passwords are interesting, and suspense is maintained until the end.
Tired of super-technological crime capers? Step back to where the crooks earn their keep by climbing through windows and digging through clay. The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a pleasant discovery.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Day They Robbed the Bank of England looks great in widescreen B&W, a crisp transfer with good audio. "Her Majesty's Brigade of Guards" is billed like a cast member. Riding to the bank in the opening scene, they help establish the period setting. Almost all of the film is well-designed interiors that never induce claustrophobia -- the fairly lavish production values make a difference. The sets for the underground vaults and tunnels in the digging sequences are very convincing.
A trailer is included, which doesn't give the movie much of a spark. Aldo Ray's star career was already fading by this time. He made another English movie called Johnny Nobody, a strange tale with religious overtones. But from this point forward it was mostly supporting roles and television appearances.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day They Robbed the Bank of England DVD-R rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.