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Action/Adventure British Drama

The Cruel Sea

To compliment my recommendation of The Long Arm, let me endorse an even better film featuring the wonderful Jack Hawkins. In the high point of his career as a star (although he would go on to have a great career as a character actor in upmarket productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, and Ben-Hur), Hawkins turns in a powerful, weighty performance as Captain Ericson in 1953’s The Cruel Sea. Scripted by Eric Ambler and based on the well-regarded Nicholas Monsarrat novel of the same name, this is a realistic, exciting and emotionally affecting portrayal of the British Royal Navy’s efforts to protect convoys from the predations of German U-Boats.

As the story begins in 1939, Ericson is called from the merchant marine to captain a corvette with a crewful of amateurs. His second lieutenant, Bennett, is a martinet of questionable ability (Stanley Baker, who really registers here in an early role for which he campaigned after being impressed with the character’s possibilities in the novel), and the junior officers below him were only recently working as barristers, journalists and in other professions that are of no value in naval combat. Ericson must train and lead them while making the terrible life or death decisions that wartime demands (If you want a short, powerful take on the nature and challenges of leadership, the events about 40 minutes into this movie are hard to beat). He is at least encouraged that when Bennett suddenly departs the ship, one of his young officers, Lockhart (Donald Sinden), starts to grow into the kind of officer he can count on.

Meanwhile, the crew have to protect convoys from U-boats, which increasingly gain the upper hand as the war wears on. In these scenes, documentary footage is smoothly blended with shots of the actors to give us the feel of being at sea as storms rage and the terrible possibility of torpedoes is ever-present. There are moments that will have you gripping the armrests and hoping along with the men that they will survive each crisis in which they find themselves.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

Hell Drivers

Having recommended the movie that gave Stanley Baker his first break (The Cruel Sea) and one he produced and starred in once established (Robbery), let me fill in the middle by recommending the thrilling film that made him a star in 1957: Hell Drivers.

The plot is agreeably simple. Baker plays Tom Yately, a tough but moral ex-con trying to go straight. He takes a job at a trucking firm managed by a ruthless boss (William Hartnell, who effectively plays the villain here, albeit of a different type than in Brighton Rock). The business would give OSHA a coronary. The truckers are assigned to ship gravel from a mine to a worksite many times a day, getting paid more money the more trips they make. They respond by driving like maniacs, at significant risk to themselves and others. And they all compete to topple the domineering, violent and reckless “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) as the top driver of the crew. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a kindly, devout Italian driver named Gino (a spot on Herbert Lom) whose girlfriend (Peggy Cummins) begins to put the moves on him.

The driving scenes in this movie are thrillingly shot by the justly revered Geoffrey Unsworth (I’ve praised his work in Superman and Unman, Wittering and Zigo). This includes the ultimate driving test from hell for Tom Yatley, in which he is accompanied by a perfectly droll Wilfrid Lawson as the firm’s mechanic. The final confrontation of the film, as Red and Tom have a trucking duel in an abandoned quarry, is particularly well-done and highly satisfying.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama

Robbery

If you are one of the many admirers of the 1968 American classic Bullitt starring Steve McQueen, you will almost certainly enjoy the British film Robbery. Released the year before Bullitt, it’s a partly fictionalized account of the astonishing 1963 heist of a British mail train by a gang of bold and crafty thieves.

Like many heist films, this one begins with a smaller job that introduces us to the characters and sets up the big score to come. The gang upon which the movie centers is led by criminal mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker). Baker was one of a number of rough-hewn leading men who captivated British audiences in the 1960s. One wonders if we would have ever heard of a similar actor — Sean Connery — had Baker not turned down the offer to play a secret agent named James Bond (Side note: It is nothing less than eerie to see how much an older Baker looks like an older Connery in later projects such as the ITV mystery special Who killed Lamb?). In all his roles, Baker radiates power, even as in this case when his character is intellectual and non-violent. He also did an excellent job producing the film. The production values are first-rate and the film was no doubt good practice for the studio that would go on to make The Italian Job.

The gang escape their first job after a harrowing, thrilling car chase through London, but they don’t spend the money. They need the swag to fund something much bigger that Clifton is planning. The actors playing Clifton’s crew all turn in good performances, as does James Booth as the Police Inspector who doggedly pursues them. We don’t get detailed back stories on any of the characters, but it doesn’t matter because the actors are talented enough to bring them to life and make them distinct.

It was the amazing car chase, much of it shot with handheld cameras by the great Douglas Slocombe, that made Steve McQueen chose Peter Yates as the Director for Bullitt. But that isn’t the only parallel between the two films. Unusually for a director gifted at action films, Yates is comfortable with long silences and seems to encourage his actors to underplay their parts. It creates a distinctive mood that is somewhat melancholy, which fits the many of Yates’ characters who are driven to do things that seem very unlikely to satisfy them in the end.

The bulk of the film is devoted to the painstaking preparations of the gang to pull off the crime of the century, and then the heist itself. As in the actual great train robbery, a number of things go wrong, giving the police a chance to track down the gang and its crafty leader. The resolution of the film is perhaps a bit sudden, and there are a few slow spots, but overall it’s a solid caper film that will please fans of the genre.