Thursday, 4 November 2010

Calculated Risk (Norman Harrison, 1963) DVD Review

Does the success of a good heist movie lie in the planning or the execution? A film like Ocean's 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) lives and dies on the charisma of its stars as it stylishly hops from setup to setup, making the presumably rather boring and frustrating act of detail double-checking exciting enough to carry a two hour movie. In fact, I could happily watch Ocean's 11 without the heist. Which is the exact opposite to a movie like Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955), the French crime classic, which is held up by a breathtaking silent heist - 32 minutes with no dialogue or score. Calculated Risk, at just 69 minutes in length, is a film that pays equal attention to both. The script, by Edwin Richfield (who earned his wage as an actor in TV series like The Avengers, 1961-1969, and films like Quartermass And The Pit, Roy Ward Baker, 1967) relies on an old formula, but injects a social awareness through tense scenarios. The plot focuses on Kip (John Rutland), an aging ex-con out for one last job after the death of his wife. The score? £200,000. He ropes in Steve (William Lucas), an old fence and robber, to help him recruit the team and set plans in motion. But of course, things don't go to plan...

Beautifully shot by DoP William McLeod (it would be his last feature), the film opens with a visit to a graveyard on a snowy winters day. Soon Kip is pitching the perfect con to Steve over a cup of tea and using common kitchen appliances - saucers, salt pots etc. - to demonstrate the layout of the area. The plan? Get underneath two bombed houses, situated next to the bank, and dig through to the safe - blowing a hole in the wall with plastic explosive. The team is assembled with a variety of sorts, the most entertaining of which is the Irish rogue Nodge (Terence Cooper), who makes occasional statements about the IRA as well as downing bottles of bitter (he even sneaks a drink into the heist). The next half hour focuses on the planning of the heist - scouting locations (and girls) and creating the schedule. In a typically British way, this is done with zero flair; think of it as kitchen sink crime. The original Ocean's 11 (Lewis Milestone, 1960) was a Rat Pack razzmatazz - a sharp suited, quick witted caper full of bright lights and cool music. Calculated Risk takes a minimalist approach to the action and honestly portrays the tedium and excitement equally involved with the excruciatingly exact process. The planning takes four weeks and although this time is edited within an inch of its life the performances are convincingly apprehensive come the robbery. Unlike the Ocean's crew (all swagger and smiles) this bunch are on-guard from beginning to end, keeping a steady eye on the wristwatch for scheduled tea breaks. They spend most of their time at Kip's house, sat round the dining table with a pint of beer or cup of tea, as if they were planning a committee meeting. Market traders hold the secrets to the shady and policemen patrol the streets at night - on a regular beat. This is 60s Britain right down to the table cloth and it's refreshing to see a crime thriller that's not only restrained, but thoughtful and shot with a socially conscious realism.

The heist itself is played with the same realism but also manages to squeeze in some extremely tense set-pieces. These never stray into suspension-of-disbelief territory but rather play the situation for what it is. Kids investigating a trapdoor, policemen attracted to a noise and a dog sniffing around unwanted are some of the simple scenarios that Harrison manages to elicit genuine suspense from - but this is mainly because we're so behind the characters. Which is interesting, seeing as they're essentially petty crooks stealing the wages of innocent citizens (the heist takes place at a time where the factory workers money arrives). They're not in it for a great cause, charity or injustice. But neither are they vile hooligans feeding on the poor to further some crime syndicate. They're just blokes out for an easy living and it's down to Richfield's script that this is so engaging. When the thieves break through to the other side of the wall and discover the bomb, it sets up a wicked scenario - suddenly the thieves are put in a life or death scenario where their greed could be their undoing. But we still root for them when they continue - because they're comrades. To say any more about the route the film takes at this point would be to say too much. Harrison gives a genuine sense of time dragging and tiresome manual labour while still creating atmosphere and mounting the odds against our (anti)heroes. You may think you have the ending figured, but don't be so sure. This is a brave, slick and social piece of realist crime cinema - brilliantly efficient in just about every department. Sadly until now it's been all but forgotten - the picture at the top of the review is the only one available online and the film has just 12 IMDB votes clocking it a 5.0 rating. It's no masterpiece, but trust me - it's much, much better than that...

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