‘The League of Gentlemen’ or — A Touch of the Newmans?
It’s got a fantastic opening as a man dressed in a tuxedo climbs out of the sewers and steps out into the freshly cleaned gutters. So many questions fill our mind. What was he doing down there? Why is he dressed to the nines? Why all the secrecy?
The practical answer would be he’s been on a reconnaissance job under a bank or cash-filled casino or hiding from someone but I think it’s the symbolism that’s the real reason and the symbol is that this man is a rat and that the sewer might even be his home or where he was born. It’s certainly where he belongs.
The man is Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) and he is disgruntled. He is disgruntled at the British army for making him redundant and ending his career. Hyde anonymously contacts other disgruntled ex-servicemen with an offer that will transform them into gruntled ex-servicemen. Hyde’s plan? To use each of the men’s various combat expertise to pull off a bank job with military, yet bloodless, precision. After all, they’re the best of the best or, more accurately, the worst of the best and not a bunch of amateur hoods so nothing can go wrong, right?
‘The League of Gentlemen’ (1960) is just great. It’s a sort of bank heist, crime caper, character study and satire of British society and the military rolled into one. The heist is exciting and a great example of efficiency and planning and even though the crime is carried out without violence itself the threat of it alone is brutal as gun-wielding masked men dominate clerks and public alike in the way only those with such training in violence can.
Yet it’s the build up that’s the most intriguing and entertaining aspect of ‘League’, specifically getting to know the gang themselves. And a shady bunch they pretty much all are too. They’ve all been kicked out of the army for various reasons and all, except for one poor innocent and persecuted guy, with total justification. The scene where Hyde invites them to dinner only to then reveal their dirty little secrets in front of each other is the best scene in the film and it’s a perverse delight watching them all squirm, especially poor Roger Livesey’s “padre”, or feeling our curiosity build as to what the next chap in line might’ve done. The warped charm Hawkins brings to his Hyde here shows why he is the one in command and you can see him relish every tortuous moment.
For me, however, the funniest gag is when they need to steal some arms from a nearby military base and when I found out who Hyde planned to pin the blame on (hint- it’s a certain terrorist organisation) I laughed hard.
Combine this with controlled directing, a decent (for the most part, as the film could do with a slight trim) pacing and some very appealing black and white cinematography that fills the entire screen and ‘The League of Gentlemen’ is almost a classic. Why “almost”? Well, I have one or two minor quibbles. Nothing major, but it’s often the little things we blithely dismiss that can ultimately trip us up as this gang fi… well, I won’t spoil anything here.
A couple of the jokes in Bryan Forbes’ script, specifically Richard Attenborough’s Lexy’s homophobic digs, sit somewhat uneasily now and probably felt a bit cheap even back then. Plus, even though the script takes a number of swipes at the British reverence for the forces I was a little unsure what those swipes were meant to be. The arrogance of the military? A defence of the military against an uncaring civilian society that’s forgotten them? This meant that rather than feeling razor-sharp satire the humour ended up feeling somewhat smug rather than smart. But, then again, smug is an issue I have with Bryan Forbes and for one very simple reason.
Now I, in no way whatsoever, have anything against Nanette Newman. In fact, I had quite a crush on her when I was younger. Sure, she’s maybe not the greatest actor there’s ever been but she’s a watchable presence and I like seeing her on screen. My problem is that whenever I’m watching anything Bryan Forbes has either written and/or directed I invariably find myself sitting there thinking “This is all a little bit smug. It feels like it was made by someone who’s married to Nanette Newman and wants me to know it.”
It’s like I’m at a fancy cocktail party, having a good time, and a script walks up to me with a drink in its hand and starts engaging me in conversation. We exchange a few banal pleasantries, discuss story structure or whatever only for the script to then tell me “You know dear boy, the guy who wrote me is married to Nanette Newman” in a totally unsolicited way. Then the script to ‘The Stepford Wives’ (1975) overhears us, sidles up and says “Oh, what a coincidence my dear chap. The guy who directed me is married to Nanette Newman too!” Then ‘International Velvet’ (1978) and ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’ (1955) join in and I start reaching for another drink.
Anyway, THAT’S my main, and pretty much only, problem with ‘The League of Gentlemen’ but if you can overcome, or completely ignore, that it’s written by someone who seems to have spent his entire life and career telling everyone he’s married to Nanette Newman then I think you’ll be absolutely fine.
All in all, for a film about disgruntled military personnel seeking financial compensation by illegal means it’s a billion times better than Michael Bay’s ‘The Rock’ (1996).
Oh, and someone I know pointed this out to me but is there not a slight similarity between the opening of this and the start of ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) — a man emerges from below surface level decked out in an immaculate suit?