Saturday, December 1, 2018

PETER YATES' "ROBBERY" ('67) - WHAT "HEAT" & "MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE" WANNA BE WHEN THEY GROW UP - by CEJ


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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


Dir.  by - Peter Yates
Written by - Peter Yates, Edward Boyd, George Markstein, Gerald Wilson
From  - "The Robber's Tale" 
by Peta Fordham
Prod. by - Stanley Baker, 
Michael Deeley
Music by - Johnny Keating
Director of Photography - 
Douglas Slocombe
Edited by - Reginald Beck 
Art Direction - 
Micheal Seymour

Running Time: 110 mins.
Release: 9/21/67 (UK) 
9/27/67 (US)
Embassy Pictures (UK)
Paramount Pictures (US)

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)
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     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Today it's commonplace (and common sense) for actors to start their own production companies in order to find good material from which they themselves can at times snatch a decent character role, and at other times maybe not appear in but from which they can take a measure of creative satisfaction by shepherding to the screen a "pet project" they just have to get before an audience. James Garner's Cherokee Productions gave birth to TV's iconic THE ROCKFORD FILES and films such as GRAND PRIX and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF. Clint Eastwood's Malpaso gave the world DIRTY HARRY, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ and more. Sean Connery founded Fountainbridge, Will Smith - Overbrook, Tom Cruise - CW and so on.

Directed by Peter Yates, ROBBERY is a speculative take
on the infamous "British Royal Mail Train Robbery" of Aug. 3rd, 1963

     But to date one of the most impressive was also one of the earliest - formed by Welsh actor / producer Stanley Baker in the 1960s. One of British film history's most recognizable faces (we promise you've seen him time and again - he having starred in over 70 films including THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ZULU, HELL DRIVERS, SODOM AND GOMORRAH and more), one of his most iconic films as actor and producer also happens to be one of the greatest crime thrillers ever made. Surprisingly still all but unknown in the U.S. (and we hope to help remedy that situation), it's cinematic DNA - along with it's director's signature style - directly lead to the creation of the classic American Steve McQueen police thriller BULLITT, the intricate 1972 heist comedy THE HOT ROCK with Robert Redford and George Segal, and (while we've never heard or read anything "official" along these lines) we've always found it all but obvious that it was a primary influence on Michael Mann's highly regarded 1989 TV movie L.A. TAKEDOWN and it's even more highly regarded 1995 kinda sorta remake / expansion film HEAT. Yeah, that's a helluva filmic pedigree. And it belongs to Peter Yates' 1967 burnished gem of a caper yarn ROBBERY.

Stanley Baker (far right) leads the crew both as "Clifton" -
the team's criminal mastermind - and as one of the film's primary producers.

     Britain's legendary "Great Train Robbery" (not to be confused with the events of the Michael Crichton Victorian era novel / film) took place in the early morning hours of Aug. 3rd, 1963 on the Bridego Railway Bridge near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire. It was there that a gang of 15 men (none of them carrying firearms) pulled off the complex and momentous task of tampering with the line's railway signals, thus secluding a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London, and robbing it of £2.6 million (£48 million in today's currency / $75.5 million in today's U.S. dollars). While most of the gang was eventually found and arrested, the bulk of the stolen money was never recovered.

(pub. 1965)

     Over the next 50+ years almost 20 books would be published on the Great Train Robbery, each offering varying accounts and theories as to who was the true mastermind behind the heist, and whether or not he (or she) was ever captured. The first two - published shortly after the actual incident, and while investigations, searches and trials were still being conducted, were 1964's "The Great Train Robbery" written by Scotland Yard investigator John Gosling - it telling the story from the police perspective; and 1965's "The Robber's Tale". Penned by Peta Fordham, the wife of one of the barristers representing gang member Ronnie Biggs (who was convicted but escaped prison after having served 15 months), "Robber's Tale" proudly brandished the subtitle "The Real Story Behind The Great Train Robbery". But most felt it was a hastily written and exploitative documentation containing numerous unverified innuendos, and which contained no more "inside" information about the robbery and subsequent trial than was already available to the general public via reams of press coverage.

     The future producer of classic American films such as THE DEER HUNTER and BLADE RUNNER, in the 1960s Michael Deeley was best known in his native England as the man behind numerous British TV series as well as 1965's award winning comedy film adaptation of the popular stage play THE KNACK ... AND HOW TO GET IT. After securing the rights to Fordham's book he brought it to director Peter Yates, who at the time only had two previous feature film credits to his name and had primarily been known as a TV director on series such as THE SAINT.

Dir. Peter Yates (circa early 1960s)

     After their project was turned down by Woodfall Productions (the company co-founded by James Bond producer Harry Saltzman), Deeley and Yates brought it to actor Stanley Baker, who as star and producer of the hit film ZULU (1964) had established a good working relationship with that film's financial backer - legendary British film mogul Joseph E. Levine. Levine agreed to bankroll ROBBERY and the project was a go.

     As those "varying accounts and theories" surrounding the events of the robbery were still being debated as Deely, Yates and Baker embarked on the creation of their film (hell, the James Bond film THUNDERBALL would even jokingly imply that super-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld's organization SPECTRE was actually the brains behind it), they decided to make no pretense at attempting to adhere to "hard and fast documentation"; this in the event that years (or even months) later newly discovered evidence or testimony would discredit and / or seriously date their feature. As such ROBBERY's screenplay (co-written by Yates, Edward Boyd and George Markstein) would make the gang members a fictitious amalgam of the actual crew. And all of the events leading up to the 25 minute robbery itself - in the film painstakingly, realistically (and oh soooo stylishly) recreated from the court testimonies of the perpetrators - would be speculative fiction.

Producer Michael Deeley (top left) on THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)

     To give the film more appeal in the U.S. an American character was written into the original script as the actual mastermind behind the heist. Legendary gangster actor George Raft originally signed on, but had to back out when England's Home Office refused him entry to the country because of his real life mob associations. Three days of footage was actually later shot aboard Joseph E. Levine's yacht on Long Island (U.S.A) with American actor Jason Robards (ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) as the "brains behind the caper". But it was later decided not to use the scenes and keep the operation an all British affair.

     As such the final cast included Stanley Baker as gang leader / mastermind Paul Clifton, James Booth (ZULU) as Inspector Langdon, Joanna Pettet (who'd co-starred in the 1967 James Bond spoof vers. of CASINO ROYALE) as Clifton's wife, Kate; and as various gang members - Frank Finlay (THE LONGEST DAY, THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Barry Foster (BATTLE OF BRITAIN, FRENZY), Clinton Grey, George Sewell and other recognizable character actor favorites from the UK's stage and screen world.


     Whether thrillers, comedies or searing dramas, the films of one of our all time favorite film makers, the late director Peter Yates (1929 - 2011), were known for their gritty representation of character as well as swift pace. THE HOT ROCK, FOR PETE'S SAKE, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE DEEP, the hybrid action-comedy-drama MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED, along with BREAKING AWAY, KRULL, THE DRESSER, ELENI, SUSPECT and THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET all garnered Yates worldwide critical acclaim. But, as is often the case with most departed film makers, that world would remember Yates for one work in particular - in this case his 1968 American directorial debut BULLITT.

BULLITT (1968)

     In a Jan. 11th, 2011 New York Times obituary written about Yates, Bruce Weber stated, "Mr. Yates’s reputation probably rests most securely on BULLITT – and indeed, on one particular scene, an extended car chase that instantly became a classic". But what most (in our opinion heart-achingly) fail(ed) to recognize and cite among Yates' list of genuinely impressive cinematic accomplishments is that BULLITT was deliberately patterned after the super-cool look (in costumes and sharp cinematographic angles), tone & feel (in terse, near pulp-like dialog and jazz-influenced score), and even in it's hair raising car chase sequence very much after ROBBERY.

(Clockwise from top) Dir. Yates with Steve McQueen on BULLITT ('68),
with Barbra Streisand on FOR PETE'S SAKE ('74), with Alex Rocco on
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE ('73), and with Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset & Robert Shaw on THE DEEP ('77)

     The first 15 minutes of ROBBERY - a considerable chunk of screen time for a film running 110 mins. - opens with a bang. A mini-movie in and of itself, and every bit as hair-raisingly exciting as a 007 movie pre-credit sequence, we the audience are thrown headlong into the third act of the latest in a string of capers designed to raise capital for the gang's "ultimate crime" - the titular later-to-come Royal Mail train heist. Using anesthetic gas Clifton's second-in-command, Frank (portrayed by Barry Foster), and a handful of others knock out a diamond courier, then, after hustling him into the back of an ambulance to cut the jewel-laden briefcase from his wrist, are spotted by police. A chase then ensues through London's crowded streets.


     Resorting to their "Plan B" escape alternative, at every couple of street corners - as their getaway car screeches around the bend, another gang member leaps near-Kamikaze-like from the vehicle, and violently rolls to a stop off-road or under a parked truck to then elude the police on foot. Perhaps surpassing the later chases of BULLITT, THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN UPS (those three films produced by American filmmaker Philip D'Antoni), in retrospect - especially if you watch the films after viewing ROBBERY - it is painfully cinematically obvious that all of those now-classic aforementioned tire-and-asphalt-burners were to greater or lesser degree patterned after the opening minutes of ROBBERY - it's chase still one of the most mind-bogglingly shot (as in the audience wondering "Jeez! Was anyone killed while filming this?") in action movie history.


     By the way, no! No one was killed during the realization of ROBBERY's hair-raising introduction. But, as with Yates very next film, BULLITT, the cinematic pace and intensity is ratcheted up exponentially by grade "A" contributions from a sterling technical crew - in this case including the down-and-dirty-realistic cinematography of Douglas Slocombe (THE LION IN WINTER, ROLLERBALL, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) and revolutionary editing of Reginald Beck (MODESTY BLAISE, THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSY). So enraptured with ROBBERY's execution (in particular it's slick "60s era GQ" visual style and opening chase sequence), it was Steve McQueen himself who lobbied Warner Bros. to hire it's director, Yates, to helm his next film - the now classic BULLITT.


     Winning a Best Screenplay award from the Writer's Guild of Britain, ROBBERY was a commercial success everywhere in the world but the U.S, where Yates says it was poorly promoted. In the wake of the film's global critical acclaim, Yates' career wasn't the only one which blossomed. Having joined as producing partners on ROBBERY, Stanley Baker and Micheal Deely founded Oakhurst Productions. Then, eventually joined by Barry Spikings, the trio would go on to form the Great Western company, which would eventually take over the legendary British Lion studios and release classics such as DON'T LOOK NOW, THE WICKER MAN, CONDUCT UNBECOMING and the 1976 David Bowie / Nicholas Roeg sci-fier THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.

A thematic precursor to James Caan's "Frank" in Michael Mann's THIEF ('81) and
Robert DeNiro's "McCauley" in HEAT ('95), Baker's "Clifton" attempts to balance his secret
criminal life with the domestic one he shares with his beloved "Kate" (Joanna Pettet)

     A near life-long heavy smoker, Baker was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1976, then passed away later that same year at the age of 48. His legacy as both actor and independent producer continues to influence the course of modern film. And a major shifting point in that career was the success of  ROBBERY - it ironically still little known to most film fans in America.


     Amazingly, although we considered ourselves huge life-long fans of director Yates (hell, two of our all time fave films period are his EDDIE COYLE and THE DEEP), even we had never heard of ROBBERY until one Saturday afternoon in the early 1990s. Those over 30 may recall that, as DVD's began taking over the marketplace from video cassettes, there was a sudden surge in the liquidation of VHS tapes everywhere from large scale rental chains to the local neighborhood Mom & Pop video emporium on the corner. And if we recall correctly we picked up ROBBERY the same day we also snagged Nicholas Meyer's little known COMPANY BUSINESS (with Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov) and Fred Schepisi's underrated THE RUSSIA HOUSE (starring Sean Connery & Michelle Pfeiffer) - all three for under ten bucks. Ahhh, those were the days!


     Rushing the loot home and popping ROBBERY into the 'ol Panasonic tape player first we were immediately blown away. Within the first 10 minutes one couldn't help but immediately recognize - from Johnny Keating's super cool, brass-laden, big band jazz score, to the film's air-tight technical execution, especially in that insane opening London car chase -  BULLITT's genetic indebtedness to the cine-genome of ROBBERY. Needless to say because of this we in subsequent years were consistently stunned when the film, which was finally beginning to build a wee bit of a steady cult reputation in the U.S. via VHS and cable TV screenings, never received a stateside DVD release. That is until kinda / sorta 2008.


     In 2008 Studio Canal officially released ROBBERY as a Pan & Scan, "Region 2" (not playable on players in the U.S. and Canada) DVD in England. And there were (and still are) also a few sites of dubious legality which claimed to offer "Region Free" versions of the film as a "per order" DVD-R. But as stated in other "Vaulted Treasure" postings we can't really speak positively or negatively as to the quality of such "independently produced" discs, or even whether or not they will play on all machines. There was, however, some good (as well as, we guess, bad) news for Blu-ray aficionados in 2015.


   
     The good news was that the Network label released a stunning new transfer of ROBBERY scanned to 2K resolution from the original 35mm negative, and restored it in it's correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The Blu contained a newly recorded interview with Michael Deeley as well as "WAITING FOR THE SIGNAL" - an all new documentary on the making of ROBBERY. It also included archival Behind The Scenes material, and an episode of TV's CINEMA series featuring a sit-down with the late Stanley Baker. The only rub (the bad news part) was that the Blu (just like the previous DVD) was only available as a "Region 2" disc. Those who still have VHS players can find video tape copies of the film on Amazon.com (U.S.) running from $8.00 used to $120.00 new. And, for those interested in burning a personal copy from TV, up till as recently as four years ago the film was still sporadically showing up on SHOWTIME and a few other commercial-free cable movie networks. It is to date, however, still not yet available for streaming anywhere in the U.S.

(L to R) 1987 Charter VHS, 2008 StudioCanal DVD, 2015 Network Blu-ray

     Regardless of whichever medium you choose to seek out and experience this lightning-fast (and yes, we're going to use that phrase one last time) "super-cool" masterclass in bad-assed action / suspense cinema, we most heartily urge that you to do so. THE ITALIAN JOB, the OCEANS 11 remakes, and even the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films? Over the years we've come to the conclusion that each of them in their youth, ... all they ever really wanted to do was be ROBBERY when they grew up. Give a look-see at this one, and we think you'll agree.


                                                                                                               CEJ

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