Given the amount of current press coverage devoted to the ‘combat stress’-related criminality of today’s young ex-service personnel, it’s perhaps surprising that we haven’t seen more British movies basing their plots on this premise in recent years. It was a different story in the wake of World War Two.
From Brighton Rock (John Boulting 1947) through to, for the sake of argument, Robbery (Peter Yates 1967), the crime film in British post-war cinema took a mazy path around the dark back streets of a country coming to terms with itself in the wake of the hostilities. The Boulting Brothers’ fine adaptation of Graham Greene’s seaside-set novel was perhaps the first of the so-called ‘Spiv Cycle’ which loosely groups other well-known films such as The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949), Night and the City (Jules Dassin 1950) and The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden 1950) with a smattering of lesser-known movies.
The Spiv Cycle was itself a strand of ‘Brit Noir’ although the bad guys in these films tend to owe a greater debt to the characters of the 1930s US gangster films rather than those found in true American film noir. The tone and nature of these films was derived from the context of the ongoing deprivations of the 1940s and typically they positioned their villains as exploitative black market racketeers or petty criminals, unpatriotically feeding off the conflict-battered and austerity-fatigued population, the insinuation being that these individuals hadn’t done their bit for the war effort.
Another early Spiv drama, Cavalcanti’s They Made Me A Fugitive (1947) was arguably the first British film to deal specifically with the concept of the disillusioned ex-serviceman turning to a life of crime. This marks quite a significant shift; miscreants like these are seen to have emerged honourably from wartime military service only to find themselves amid a national malaise of domestic breakdown and criminality. A string of films followed depicting disaffected veterans resorting to malfeasance in order to makes ends meet; some early examples to look out for include Dancing with Crime (John Paddy Carstairs 1947), Noose (Edmond T. Gréville 1948) and The Flamingo Affair (Horace Shepherd 1948).
By the mid 1950s it was not unusual to find films involving former bands of brothers reformed as well-organised criminal gangs. The Good Die Young (Lewis Gilbert 1954), The Ship that Died of Shame (Basil Dearden 1955) and The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden 1960) stand out from this period. At the tail end of the cycle, before the combined effect of the swinging sixties and the all-too-real celebrity status of the Kray twins and their ilk pushed this paradigm out of the cultural picture, a handful of downbeat, low-budget heist/caper films were put out that share many look-and-feel ingredients.
Names and faces associated with these neat, taut and spare little films would often include the likes of Stanley Baker and Tom Bell – seek out Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield 1957) and Payroll (Sidney Hayers 1961) respectively and The Criminal (Joseph Losey 1960) collectively for further evidence of their presence in the sub-genre – and be an onscreen black and white blur of duffle coats, tarpaulin-covered trucks, motorcyclists wearing helmets fitted with chinstraps, assorted secret lock-ups and hideouts, oxyacetylene torches and sticks of dynamite (safes for the breaking open of) and lovely big shiny black Wolseley police cars with bells instead of sirens.
One of the best, but least well-known films from this grouping would be A Prize of Arms (Cliff Owen 1962); set at the time of the Suez Crisis it boasts both the aforementioned Baker as bitter ex-captain Turpin and Bell as nervy mechanic Fenner alongside Helmut Schmid as a Polish explosives expert who saw active service with Turpin. Their plan to infiltrate an army barracks at night and steal a fortune from under the noses of a pay convoy en route to the Middle East comes to the inevitable sticky end but the tight-as-a-drum wristwatch timing of their attempt is nail-biting in the extreme, thanks in part to a young Nicolas Roeg and Kevin Kavanagh whose short story the film was based on. Fortunately Odeon Entertainment saw fit to give it a DVD release a few years ago which means its gritty, crepuscular, ‘kitchen sink’-meets-Cagney delights can now be easily enjoyed.
Jez Conolly @jezconolly