The explosive gut-wrenching high octane car chase that kicked off this thriller – and provided British director Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968) with a Hollywood calling card – is somewhat out of place in this intriguing documentary-style fictionalised account of the British heist of the century, the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Setting aside that the chase would have been better employed as the climax, it does provide the cops with enough leads to keep tabs on some of the criminals, ensuring the authorities become aware of the gigantic theft planned.
But Yates’ unusual approach takes us away from the usual crime picture. You can say goodbye to the cliched villain for a start. Mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker) dresses like a suave businessman. Wife Kate (Joanna Pettet) rails against him for betrayal, not sexual infidelity, but for pretending he had given up the life of crime. And there is any amount of nuance. We don’t discover that Clifton lives in a huge mansion with a massive drive until the very end, we don’t know who else the police are tailing until they are picked up, we are not let in on the secret of Clifton’s escape until suddenly he is taking off in a light airplane. And there is the unexpected. A suspect is identified in a line-up by a witness slapping his face, a message sent to Kate from Paul via a dog.
Nor, beyond the basics, are we let in on the details of the plan, more time spent on recruitment, and not the usual suspects either, Robinson (Frank Finlay) – broken out of prison for this specific job – brought unwillingly on board because, as a former bank employee, he can check the stolen notes. I should point out, which may not be obvious to a contemporary audience, that banks shifted money over the weekend via the London-Glasgow night train that carried the mail. Given the £3 million being transported, the train is staffed not by a regiment of security guards but by postal workers sorting letters.
There’s nothing desperately clever about the plan anyway beyond its audacity. Signals are changed to make the train stop at the allotted point, the robbery takes place in military fashion, timed to the minute, some sacks left behind when time is up.
What’s cleverest is the hideout, an abandoned airfield, with underground passages. The gang doesn’t intend to run while the heat is at its hottest but some time later, the cash divvied up, Clifton’s share sent as cargo overseas. Clifton knows the consequences will involve road blocks, house searches, cars impounded, arrests but “without the money they can’t prove anything.” A junkyard owner is paid – too handsomely as it transpires – to clean the vehicles used of fingerprints and other potential giveaways (not much else in the days before DNA). And no matter Clifton ruling with a rod of iron, there is always the idiot who doesn’t quite stick to the plan.
Most of the picture is detail, not just the meticulous planning but the equally meticulous hounding by the cops, interrogating getaway driver Jack (Clinton Greyn), identity parades, telephones tapped (or a crude version of it), with only the occasional hunch to keep the police, led by the dogged Inspector Langdon (James Booth), on the right track. A few years before cops in movies were uniformly identified as either corrupt or useless, sometimes both, this bunch are shown to be relatively efficient, though still prone to underhand means.
Dominating proceedings is the moustached figure of Stanley Baker (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) whose brusque no-nonsense manner sets the tone. He’s a cut above the normal criminal not just in ambition but ingenuity and while he rules the roost in the gang he’s less at home at home where Kate gives him a hard time. James Booth (Fraulein Doktor, 1969) is impressive as the pursuer, well-versed in gangland lore, inclined to look beyond the obvious. With only a few scenes Joanna Pettet (The Best House in London, 1969) makes a mark.
In supporting parts you will spot Barry Foster (The Family Way, 1966), who seems to have the knack of catching the camera’s attention with a look or the turn of his head, and Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), and a host of British character actors like George Sewell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Glynn Edwards (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968).
But the honors go to Peter Yates (Summer Holiday, 1963), not just for the stunning car chase which Hollywood would forever emulate, but the constant tension, the cutting back and forth between cops and robbers, and between the overtly dramatic and the subtle. He also had a hand in the screenplay along with George Markstein (The Odessa File, 1974) and in his only movie Edward Boyd (The View from Daniel Pike, 1971-1973).