Sunday, January 30, 2011

Check it Out: THE BANK JOB

When you sit and think about it afterwards, the conspiracy theory at the center of the 2008 caper movie The Bank Job sort of falls apart, but while you're watching the thing, it seems at least moderately convincing. As someone who has giggled down my cuffs at stuff like The Parallax View for years, that's considerable praise.

For one thing, it's about a conspiracy that blows up in the faces of the clever little people who concocted it. History suggests that this is often what happens, either rather quickly (Watergate) or down the line. (In 1953, the CIA and MI-6 toppled the democratically-elected President of Iran and replaced him with their puppet, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi [aka The Shah] for fear of losing oil concessions to nationalization. They kept their concessions, but Pahlavi's brutal dictatorship led to revolution and, alas, Ayatollahs, Islamic rule, and Mohammed Abedinijad -- President Emeritus of the Subway Fondler's Club -- Oh, and they lost their oil concessions anyway.) The plot revolves around the 1971 robbery of the safe-deposit vault at the Baker Street branch of Lloyd's Bank (yes, that Baker Street). The men actually involved (Jason Statham, Daniel Mays, Stephen Campbell Moore) think they're just cashing in on a hot tip passed along to them by an old friend (Saffron Burrows). In fact, she's the go-between in a scheme cooked up by an old lover (Richard Lintern) who's an up-and-comer at MI-6 and has promised to rescue her from drug charges. It seems that a Notting Hill villain named Michael X (his actual name was Michael deFreitas, and he also went by the alias Michael Abdul Malik) has allegedly stashed photos of Princess Margaret, the Queen's sister, in a box in the vault, photos depicting the Princess Royal making like the star of an Elks Club smoker reel, and is using them to avoid dong serious jail time. Mr. X (Peter De Jersey) has just been arrested on serious charges and the government would like to deprive him of his bargaining chip. And maintain the status quo (let's face it, if release of the photos brought down the monarchy, they would make damn sure that the aristocracy found itself circling the same drain).

The robbery itself goes well (the thieves dig a 50-foot tunnel from the basement of a shop they rent--a tunnel that goes under an intervening restaurant--to the wall of the bank vault); it's the aftermath that's a mess. To begin with, once the thieves discover the existence of the photos and their importance, they decide to use them as their bargaining chip. Even worse, amidst the debris from the robbery is a pocket notebook that belongs to a Soho vice operator (David Suchet) that he's used to meticulously record his payoffs to the Metropolitan CID's "Dirty Squad." The government can be dealt with, but this fellow isn't nearly amenable -- when our minor-league villains can't return his notebook pronto, people start getting hurt. And killed.

The script has its roots in several real-life events and people. Most obviously, the robbery itself, which was carried out in the early hours of Saturday, September 11, 1971 (that is not a cheerful date) and netted, in contemporary money, close to 32 million pounds in cash and valuables. Titles at the end of the film state that no arrests were ever made in the robbery and that the government imposed a press blackout on stories about the case four days afterwards. In fact, six men were arrested and tried in connection with the robbery and the laundering of the proceeds (the thieves were convicted, the money launderers were acquitted), and all of this received full coverage in the press. (The closest thing to a press blackout the British government can issue is something called a "D-Notice," and it is a request to withhold information for national security reasons, not an order. To the extent that they are followed, I suspect it's because reporters have sources in the intelligence agencies--even reporters for leftish papers such as The Guardian and The Independent--and they would like to keep them friendly.)

The film also dramatizes, very loosely, the corruption scandal that exploded in the Metropolitan (London) CID in the early 1970's. While porn shops and strip joints spread through the city's Soho district like mushrooms after a rainstorm, the Obscene Publications Squad was busy raiding art galleries ("intimate, erotic" lithographs by John Lennon of himself in sexual congress with his wife, Yoko Ono. Ive seen them--undeniably intimate. Erotic? personally, I've always found "erotic" and "John and Yoko" to be mutually-exclusive concepts.) and the offices of the satirical magazine Oz (an issue written and edited mostly by teenagers and centered on topics sure to rile their parents--namely, sex and drugs). When Home Secretary Reginald Maulding inquired as to why the OPS wasn't rounding up actual Obscene Publications, he got lame excuses from George Fenwick, who ran the outfit. Maulding's response was to hire Robert Mark, the Chief Constable of Leicester, to be the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and set him to work digging up the corruption he strongly suspected. Marks delivered, as did a tabloid newspaper called Sunday People who broke a story in 1972 about a porn-shop/strip-joint owner named James Humphreys taking a lavish vacation to Cyprus in the company of Police Commander Kenneth Drury and their respective wives (Humphreys footed the bills). A subsequent raid at Humphreys' house led to a safe where he kept a notebook meticulously documenting his payoffs to Drury, Fenwick, and many others, including a senior police official who had supervision of all of the police "special squads." The dirt uncovered led to a rash of resignations, early retiremements, even to a few firings and criminal trials. Still, many outside observers believed that Marks' investigation was only able to scratch the surface of police corruption in the city.

Finally, there is the matter of Michael deFreitas (aka Michael X), supposedly the man in possession of Maggie's naughty holiday snaps. Born in Trinidad, he emigrated in Britain in the late 1950's and quickly became a drug-dealer, pimp, and free-lance knee-breaker for the slumlords who ran the Notting Hill district (in the days when it was a hardscrabble enclave for West Indian emigrants, not a gentrified yuppie hell). In the mid-60's he found it convenient to impose himself on Britain's emerging Black Power movement, using it mostly as a cover for his criminal enterprises and becoming a major attraction on the radical-chic cocktail circuit. A few of his canape friends helped him found an inner-city commune called Black House that quickly fell into chaos and disrepair and later burned to the ground. After he was arrested in 1971 in the wake of a failed extortion/kidnap plot against one of the slumlords he was associated with, he fled back to Trinidad, where he started another failed commune, which also burned down. When authorities went to investigate, they found a shallow grave containing the bodies of DeFreitas' cousin, Joseph Skerrit, and Gale Benson, the daughter of an MP and the long-time mistress of DeFreitas hanger-on Hakim Jamal (nee Alan Donaldson--mentally unstable, he had done time as a juvenile for murdering his mother, and was murdered himself in 1973 after he returned to his hometown of Boston). deFreitas was arrested and eventually charged with, and convicted of, Skerrit's murder. Although witnesses asserted that he had ordered, and participated in, the murder of Benson, he was never charged in her death. Despite several well-funded appeals, DeFreitas was executed in 1975

(Sorry for spending so long on the film's backstory, but I did read up on it, and it was seriously-interesting stuff. We now return to our regular programming already in progress.)

The screenplay is the work of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, veteran film and television writers who have worked both in comedy (the great 60's sit-com The Likely Lads, all of Tracy Ullman's various TV shows, the 1988 remake of Vice Versa), thrillers (1971's Villain, a very twisted little gangster film starring Richard Burton) and projects that had a bit of both (1967's The Jokers, where Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford steal the Crown Jewels from The Tower of London--basically for the hell of it). Their use of overlapping flashbacks at the beginning is somewhat confusing, but they still do a nice job of dramatizing how the ever-so-clever scheme comes together and how it proceeds to blow up in the faces of all concerned, leaving everybody badly burned.

The cast is nothing to sneeze at either. The gang of thieves here is led by Jason Statham, a good actor who rarely gets a chance to demonstrate the fact (it's amusing that his latest film is the remake of a Charles Bronson vehicle--Bronson often found himself in the same position). Statham does a good job by the character's quiet shrewdness, black amusement at the spiraling disaster that his life becomes in the wake of the robbery, and his love for his wife (the delightful Keeley Hawes) and kids and his fear of losing them or being lost to them. And for once, he is allowed to be human. Not one vicious one-liner over someone's dead body. He is nicely complemented by Daniel Mays and Stephen Campbell Moore as his accomplices, fellows who are even less dodgy than he is, and thus utterly out of their depth when things start to go wrong. The gang is nicely rounded out by cameos from James Faulkner, as a gentlemanly con-man who acts as the front when renting the shop from which they begin digging the tunnel, and Alki David as the contractor who lends them technical advice.

As the old girlfriend who gets everybody into this mess, Saffron Burrows is playing one of the great thriller/adventure-movie stereotypes, The Lady Without Passport, getting by on her looks, her brains, and her nerves. Burrows essays the role with brio and panache and a nice touch of pathos as well. As her other old boyfriend, the smart guy at MI-6, Richard Lintern nicely limns his character's ambition and flexible morals, but also the character's increasing panic and self-disgust as his little escapade collapses into grisly farce and people start dying. He is nicely complemented by Peter Bowles as his boss, an empty-suit bureaucrat whose only real talent is self-preservation.

As the more honest villains of the piece, David Suchet and Peter De Jersey are vivid and sometimes very frightening, the latter in a part that feels sadly underwritten. The great secret to Suchet's performance is its dry, matter-of-fact quality. This vice lord regards himself as a businessman and anything he does to protect that business, from paying bribes to committing torture and murder, is simply the cost of operating. De Jersey has a great early scene where he cynically reels off the sort of radical boilerplate his audience of slumming toffs expects (among them John and Yoko, who were sort of ubiquitous in those days), and he brings a poignant sense of frustrated dignity and intelligence to the character, one of those people who seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot pretty much from the day they were born (whatever conservatives say, poverty and racial discrimination tend to be factors in all of this). deFrietas' hanger-on Hakim Jamal is played by Colin Salmon, unrecognizable behind a thick beard and given almost nothing to do (anyone who's seen Salmon in such TV shows as Keen Eddie and Law and Order: UK know what a waste that is).

The director is Roger Donaldson, whose career began with serious films such as Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, and The Bounty and alas degenerated mostly into genre nonsense after that. This is undeniably a genre film as well, but his work is lean, smart and engaged in the subject matter (the script probably helps). He not only does well by the story and the actors, but he creates something of the sad, angry atmosphere of early-70's Britain, rattled by recession and social chaos (women and racial minorities were expecting, you know, their rights) and what can only be described as a sense of hangover from the headier days of the 1960's. If nothing else, this movie is a wonderful antidote to nostalgia . . .

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