The League of Gentlemen (1960) contains one of my favorite moments from postwar British cinema; a group of ex-soldiers carrying submachine guns plow through London’s narrow streets with their faces concealed behind gas masks. Instead of dodging an attack they are preparing to rob a bank and their military uniforms have been replaced by civilian clothing. These masked figures are the stuff of nightmares and conjure up horrific images associated with two world wars that nearly brought the British Empire to its knees. Despite their ferocious appearance and felonious behavior, the men are not monsters. They are the forgotten casualties of war. Battle-scarred and bitter, they have returned home to discover that their prospects are dwindling. Jobs are scarce and survival is difficult during peacetime when your skillset is limited to sharpshooting, military strategy and bomb construction. Is it any wonder that they have chosen a life of crime to secure a future for themselves?
Like many of the best heist films, The League of Gentlemen brings together a group of scoundrels and outcasts. This band of ne’er-do-well brothers is assembled by retired Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) and consists of conmen, racketeers, petty thieves, spies and gigolos who survive on the fringes of polite society while barely able to pay their mounting bills. The men are desperate for another chance at life and yearn for the male camaraderie they experienced during the war so they eagerly fall in line behind the colonel. Together they decide to commit a string of crimes that if successful, will net them all an equal sum of £100,000 (over a million dollars apiece in 1960). Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as predicted but the adventure is well worth taking for them and us.
Basil Dearden (Dead of Night , Victim , All Night Long ) directed from a script based on a pulp novel written by John Boland that was, in turn, adapted for the screen by fellow director and actor Bryan Forbes (Séance on a Wet Afternoon , King Rat , The Stepford Wives ). Besides his screenwriting credit, Forbes is also a cast member along with Jack Hawkins (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia ), Nigel Patrick (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman , Raintree County ), Richard Attenborough (Brighton Rock , The Great Escape ), Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp , I Know Where I’m Going! ), Kieron Moore (Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), The Day of the Triffids ), Terence Alexander (The V.I.P.s , The Day of the Jackal ) and Norman Bird (Whistle Down the Wind , Victim ).
The actors are uniformly good and like the characters they play in the film, they were all enlisted men during WWII. Their natural aptitude with weapons and the apparent empathy they have with the characters they portray provides the film with some unexpected realism that reinforces the plot’s precarious emotional core. You may not want to root for criminals but The League of Gentlemen demand our sympathy and we want them to succeed.
The film was shot in a straightforward manner with very little flourishes but Dearden goes all out during the spectacular heist scene. A lot of the action is filmed using low angles and close-ups that ratchet up the suspense, which is palpable as the men roll into London and begin to carry out their plan. The decision to use smoke bombs to cloak their crime creates a nightmarish scenario that becomes the film’s pinnacle moment. As I alluded to in my opening paragraph, in their gas masks the gentlemen no longer resemble living breathing men. They have transformed into ghostly apparitions of war.
Much like America’s Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones , Judgement of Nuremberg , Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ), director Basil Dearden was often criticized for making “message movies.” The League of Gentlemen is considered somewhat of an anomaly in his filmography due to its subject matter but that ignores some of the film’s mature themes including lots of homosexual innuendos (look for Oliver Reed in one of his early scene-stealing appearances playing an effeminate actor) and the suggestion that one of the gentlemen (Kieron Moore) is being blackmailed because he’s gay, which was considered a criminal offense in Britain until 1967. A year after making The League of Gentlemen, Dearden would explore these ideas further while directing the highly controversial and critically acclaimed Victim (1961) starring Dirk Bogarde. Much like Kieron Moore, Bograde’s character is also a homosexual man who becomes the target of malicious blackmailers.
Despite the movie’s adult humor, subtle antiwar message and unsentimental perspective on postwar Britain, this iconic caper can simply be enjoyed as a lighthearted farce with well-defined characters and a twisty plot full of unexpected surprises. It wasn’t the first film to use the timeworn blueprint popularized by American and French crime classics such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Bob le flambeur (1956), but it has a uniquely British sensibility and its influence is undeniable.
The award-winning comic book author Alan Moore took inspiration from the film (and the original pulp novel it was based on) to create his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, which was adapted for the screen in 2003. The League of Gentlemen is also the name of a popular British comedy troupe consisting of Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith while generations of British filmmakers such as Peter Collinson (The Italian Job ) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ) have continued to successfully mine it for ideas.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published on April 13, 2017