The Day They Robbed the Bank of England DVD Review: Introducing Peter O'Toole

A taut, well-crafted Victorian Era heist thriller that forged the way for many crime dramas to come.
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Though he had a relatively noted - if short-lived - career in the Hollywood limelight as an A picture actor, it's sometimes hard to imagine the late Aldo Ray as a serious performer when one notes the amount of motion pictures he made in his later years that were preceded B, X, Z, and just about every other letter of the alphabet. Today, he is probably best remembered for not being remembered at all - with an entire legion of mostly clueless Quentin Tarantino followers assuming Brad Pitt's Inglourious Basterds character, Lt. Aldo Raine, is merely just a similarly sounding coincidence if Ray's name is uttered. Which probably doesn't happen very often these days. (And it's not a coincidence, either: Tarantino meant it as an homage to the actor.)

Plucked from obscurity with no training whatsoever, Mr. Ray shot in to the sky and was subsequently shot down by the greater Hollywood motion picture industry within just a few short years. From there on in, the actor began to eke out an existence by appearing in whatever he could, to wit many bad movie aficionados such as myself remember him fondly. But before he descended into appearing in the likes of ultra cheapo exploitation movies (and even one pornographic film - which he, thankfully, kept his clothes on for) in the '70s and '80s, Ray managed to make a few more legitimate titles for history to essentially forget over the years, beginning with a 1960 British heist picture, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.

Still a somewhat bankable (heh) name abroad, Ray was brought to England to play the lead here as a fellow of Irish-American heritage who is brought in by Irish revolutionaries in 1901 to conjure up a method of breaking into the Bank of England. While the stocky, former World War II frogman was always a little wet behind the ears when it came to being on the screen, he nevertheless managed to hold his own very well in this entirely British-made production. And that's really saying an awful fucking lot when you stop to consider that Ray's "lawful" opposite - the good guy of the feature, folks - is none other than a young Peter O'Toole making his official film debut, well, then you really have to wonder where Ray could have gone had Hollywood not let him out to dry so soon.

In fact, were it not for his casting in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, ladies and gentlemen, Peter O'Toole would not have been cast in Lawrence of Arabia two years later. That right there makes this one worth a look at, to say nothing of the fact that O'Toole's dyed black hair and matchin' 'stache make him look like Errol Flynn's younger brother. Story-wise, O'Toole is a lonely, entirely too talkative lieutenant of Her Majesty's Guardsman in charge of making sure no life forms save the usual amount of beasties (rats) scurry about the dimly-lighted, atmospheric corridors below the surface of London. Ray gains his confidence and friendship via the manly bonding art of alcohol and angling; their disposable female companions of an afternoon of fishing a subtle, unexplored sign that O'Toole may desire more than just the odd drink from his newfound friend.

But of course, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain at that point, so any subtexts I'm picking up there could simply be emerging from my own suppressed side (though I think not). Naturally, Ray's character has other interests, such as stealing a cool million in gold bullion from the Queen in a time that predates closed surveillance monitoring and a kajillion motion detector beams in an shiny electronic safe haven (although I would gladly give up all that I own to see Aldo Ray do Catherine Zeta-Jones' Entrapment routine). Ray also has his eyes on yet another score: the widowed revolutionary Mrs. Muldoon (Elizabeth Sellars), who is also the object of affection for another member of the heist team, as played here by an appropriately angry Kieron Moore.

It may sound easy to you considering the lack of modern devices, but once you realize the only method of pulling the scheme off is by entering an abandoned, sealed-up sewer and tunneling your way in with picks and shovels with two other men and small wooden wheelbarrows, you might want to reconsider that assessment. Especially when one of your helpmates hates you. Joseph Tomelty and German actor Wolf Frees (another guy who just sort of came and went in the film industry, albeit in another part of the world) co-star as more of hired hand Ray's colleagues, while the great Hugh Griffith and his enormously bushy eyebrows call the shots on the project from afar.

Albert Sharpe (who only appeared in a dozen films) has a great smaller role as a Victorian Era "tosher" (sewer scavenger) whom Ray cons into helping by posing as an archaeologist! (Hmm, I'd like to see Ray as Indiana Jones too, come to think of it.) Andrew Keir (the other other Professor Quatermass) and an uncredited Geoffrey Bayldon (in a bit part as a barkeep) also appear in this very taut, well-crafted Victorian Era heist thriller from director John Guillermin, who later brought us The Towering Inferno and the remake of King Kong that suddenly became good once Peter Jackson's version came around. Future frequent 007 screenwriter Richard Maibaum helped adapt the original John Brophy novel with Howard Clewes, the latter of whom received a BAFTA nomination in 1961 for his screenplay here.

One incredibly wonderful brief scene has O'Toole - ecstatic to have found a friend to share things with - eagerly showing Ray to the wine cellar of the bank (!), wherein Ray's introduction to the vault doors via curiosity are edited in such a manner that you could swear 95% of all contemporary filmmakers intentionally mimic. Indeed, Guillerman and company clearly forged a tunnel through the clay for most (if not all) of the crime dramas that came after The Day They Robbed the Bank of England on the calendar here. Though it's lacking the high-speed car chase sequences through underground tunnels, people jumping from trains or falling out of aircraft, and bloody shootouts today's more-is-less approach joyfully embraces, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England instead utilizes that which the Brits are best known for: good ol' fashioned drama and in-general excellent filmmaking.

The Warner Archive presents this mostly ignored (over here, at least) classic on DVD in a widescreen aspect ratio that either recreates or comes close to the original (purported) 2.00:1 aspect ratio. The video and audio (mono) qualities are about as top notch as they can get here, and the movie's original theatrical trailer for its American release (wherein the narrator has to remind us who the British actors are) is shown in an open matte 1.33:1 ratio.

Highly recommended. Even if you don't know who Aldo Ray was.

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