‘The League of Gentlemen’ – a very British heist on Criterion Channel

Jack Hawkins stars in the British caper film with military order from Basil Dearden

Basil Dearden’s The League of Gentlemen (1960) is a sturdy and meticulous heist film built on an appreciation of teamwork, camaraderie and hard work: a professional work about professionals working. That’s the foundation of many a classic heist or men-on-a-mission thriller and this film offers it as a kind of skewed redemption for a misfit band of former military men, most of them drummed out for conduct unbecoming (you know, petty schemes and such), many of them fallen into cons and criminal schemes and all of them adrift in the post-war culture.

Jack Hawkins is the merry ringmaster who pulls the circus together: his Mr. Hyde was “made redundant” after 25 years of service (I love how the British find such mundane words for such dramatic acts as being fired) so he wants to use the skills that Her Majesty’s service has provided and put them to use in a bank robbery. And, along the way, give a little back to the army that honored his years of service by pensioning him out.

The film is a slow starter, introducing the current circumstances of each of the seven hand-picked men as they receive their invitations to dinner and a proposal, and then it tosses them together into a mansion turned high-class barracks with a chain of command. Nigel Patrick plays his number two, a blasé gigolo with a sly manner and cultured front, and he slips into the new situation with surprising ease, as do the rest of the motley crew, which includes Roger Livesey as a con man peddling pornography behind a priest’s collar, Richard Attenborough as a mechanic with a sideline “fixing” slot machines, and Bryan Forbes (also the screenwriter) as a piano-playing gigolo.

These men are hardly gentlemen as the film opens, no matter what fronts they put on, but through the course of their scheme they adopt a gentleman’s code of honor and loyalty that sticks to the end, thanks to the mutual respect and bonds of friendship forged through their tour of duty. All this teamwork and talent put toward a shared goal actually renews them, this hardy band of brothers with an ignoble cause. Even those moments of minor insubordination and disobedience that most films would tease out as the loose thread that ultimately unravels the whole plan are just minor infractions with no repercussions. That comes from an altogether different source.

There’s nothing showy to director Basil Dearden’s four-square direction and he takes his time to appreciate each element of the plan, which is part of the fun of the film. Dearden is as patient and meticulous as these men, and he watches to the inevitable end with the same measured appreciation. Note another future star sighting: Oliver Reed as an effeminate actor who crashes their rehearsal space expecting an audition and, in a few seconds, fulfills every gay stereotype that Dearden’s next film, Victim (1931), completely defies.

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Also on DVD in a box set and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire / The League of Gentlemen / Victim / All Night Long) (The Criterion Collection)

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On DVD in the box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground from Criterion’s budget label Eclipse with three additional film by Dearden: Sapphire (1959), Victim (1961) with Dirk Bogarde, and All Night Long (1962) with Patrick McGoohan (reviewed on Stream On Demand here).

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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