In 1960, some British underground filmmakers made a movie called The League of Gentlemen. It’s a heist movie, and to my mind, maybe the best ever made. Certainly, fifty years later, it remains a fresh cinematic experience.
A retired colonel played by Jack Hawkins assembles a group of ex-soldiers with tainted, criminal histories for a robbery. That’s all I’ll say for plot specifics. These men almost belong in a Hawks film, but no, they’re too melancholy for that. And it’s the melancholy, the dry wit, the way writer Forbes, director Dearden, and the actors create a group of ex-soldiers, lost in a world of peace with a last chance at glory that becomes something quite terrific.
Nigel Patrick gives a standout performance, an equal to Hawkins in screen presence. A scene like the one where Patrick washes Hawkins’ dishes is something that would never make it into most movies, but this is what makes The League of Gentlemen good. The heist scene is nothing compared the tiny moments between these characters, the dialog, the wit.
And of the heist I will only say that it was simple. Stark. It and the movie possess no flash. They are neither burdened by tricks or twists. Anyone making a movie in this genre should return to Gentlemen because it will outlast all the Ocean’s and Italian Jobs.
I must thank good and bad luck that this movie never came together as it was intended to (as a Hollywood vehicle with Cary Grant). Sure, that fantasy version might’ve been a good romp but what we have here is very special. And for me, an introduction to a group of filmmakers I’d like to make cinematic acquaintances. Jack Hawkins has always caught my eye, a contagious force on screen. Add to his company Bryan Forbes, young, full of life in this picture. He also wrote the screenplay (from a novel by John Boland) and later directed some films. More movies directed by Basil Dearden are available in the Criterion box which includes Gentlemen and I plan to seek them out.