Nov 24, 2014

On DVD: Peter O'Toole Breaks Out in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1959)

It's interesting how time can affect the way we view a film, not just because of changing trends and culture, but also in the way we view the actors on the screen. The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a sturdy, low-key thriller, with plenty of high-wire tension, but today it is perhaps best known for featuring Peter O'Toole's first major role in a film. Now his gracefully controlled performance can be enjoyed on a crisp new DVD from Warner Archive.

This is an unusual caper flick, because, for once, the characters do not steal because of greed, the desire to escape to a sunny island or even for thrills. These thieves are raising money to fund the IRA and they plan to do so by breaking into the gold vault in the high security Bank of England. Big on passion, but not so much strategy, they recruit Irish-American Charles Norgate (Aldo Ray), a mining engineer who is unknown in England and knows a thing or two about tunneling under a bank vault.

Most of the film follows Ray as he quietly educates himself about the bank, claiming an interest in architecture to gain access to high class circles. It's a nice piece of detective work and it's fun to watch him deliberately collect data, thrilling archivists and museum proprietors who do not often get such detailed requests for information. They are too flattered to be suspicious.
O'Toole and Ray

Part of Holgate's quest involves befriending Captain Monty Finch, a bored, but dedicated bank guard (Peter O'Toole) who through his sponsorship gets Norgate an account at the bank and a tour of the vaults. The two seem to enjoy a genuine friendship, or at least mutual admiration, though Holgate doesn't waver in his task. Finch never thinks to doubt him, until one night when the ever present rats suddenly disappear from the bank's basement and the gas lamps mysteriously dim.

The relationship between Finch and Holgate is the most fascinating in the film. Much more interesting than a half-hearted romance between Charles and Iris, a member of the gang, which too obviously only serves to advance the plot. There's also the standard hot-headed youth who is "not so sure about Holgate." The rest tend to blend into the background, though it is always a delight to see character actor Hugh Griffith and his Muppet-level bushy eyebrows.

Aldo Ray always looks, and sounds a little sleepy, which makes him endearing, but not terribly exciting as a leading man. As sympathetic as he can be, O'Toole outshines him in every way. You're supposed to be pulling for Holgate the hope of a revolution, but you want Captain Finch to take him to task.

And he does so brilliantly, O'Toole's reaction to the final denouement is so smooth, so completely satisfying that I had a huge grin on my face. It was all due to him too. If he had been in Ray's role, I know he would have still had me on his side. This is what makes a movie star.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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