No, this isn’t Sean Connery’s last fiasco of a film. The League of Gentlemen is a superb heist-comedy from the UK and director Basil Dearden in 1960. Prior to this one, I was really only familiar with Dearden from Victim and his entry in Dead of Night. He struck me as a capable director with an oddball filmography. Time to re-evaluate. The League of Gentlemen is fantastic and influential.
Not quite the same style as Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, Dearden’s film is a bit drier and more of a straight-up robbery thriller; kind of like a British The Dirty Dozen. The laughs here are sardonic under-the-breath one-liners. Future directors Bryan Forbes (on the left below) and Richard Attenborough (center in the dark sweater) round out a cast that includes Powell and Pressburger regular Roger Livesy (the older gentleman in black frame right) and epic-film-regular (Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) Jack Hawkins (next to Attenborough with arms crossed):
The structure of The League of Gentlemen is what is at first remarkable. It’s so simple. Forbes wrote it. He of one of my alltime favorite films, Seance on a Wet Afternoon. The three acts are ostensibly divided into three, longish events. Act I is a long set-up where we meet the large cast of former army men that Hawkins’ Hyde plans to assemble. Act II is basically a dry-run for Act III. The crew rob a military base of weapons in a hoax involving fake colonels, electricians and IRA members. Act III is the robbery itself. Unlike other films that would have the inevitable falling out, the irreplaceable man needing replacement, the mid-Act II complication, etc, The League of Gentlemen simply relies on the chemistry of the group, Dearden’s uncomplicated but solid direction (lots of dolly-ins for emphasis and to end a scene, usually in a close-up on Hawkins), and the fact that the exact method of ending thievery is kept largely murky.
Here’s a brief look at that very stylish robbery. This is 1960. It’s not quite Melville’s style, which is a little too cool, and it’s not quite anything out of late-era noirs, which prefer grit and double-crosses to lengthy sequences. If this scene has a predecessor perhaps it’s the celebrated heist from Rififi in 1955. The smoke-screen and gas-mask combination is gorgeous. How many filmmakers in the 1990s up until current day have emulated this feeling?
The robbery is mostly wordless, relies heavily on Dearden’s excellent shot selection to lay everything out clearly, and, despite a quick car complication towards the end, is more interested in process than suspense.
The funny thing about The League of Gentlemen is that there actually is what would normally be a mid-Act II twist, it’s just moved to the end, when Hyde’s old war buddy – and lush – Bunny (Robert Coote) shows up:
This is just the type of character who might appear around the 50-60 minute mark in another film to throw a wrench into the operation somehow. I’d wager that if (unfortunately that should read “when”) this film is remade, there will be a substantial rewrite that either moves Bunny to earlier in the film, or adds some other element to make the move from Act II to Act III bumpier. As it is, Bunny is comic relief whose presence is momentary suspense (who’s that knocking at my door?), but ultimately contributes very little to the ending that comes to pass.