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quarta-feira, 16 de dezembro de 2015
The League of Gentlemen: a masterpiece of British cinema
Basil Dearden's stylish caper was the last hurrah for a classic era of British comedy
At the end of the Fifties, British film comedies changed forever. Until about 1960 they were relentlessly middle-class, even when the subject matter was not (think Passport to Pimlico, or Hue and Cry). After that date the British comedy is either the Carry On film or a derivative thereof; and although for a while the humour is entertaining and the vulgarity clever, by the end of the Sixties it is simply coarse.
Two films from 1960 stick in the mind as the last hurrah of the more sophisticated brand of comedy. One is School for Scoundrels, directed – until he was fired halfway through for being impossibly drunk – by Robert Hamer, the tragic genius who made Kind Hearts and Coronets. Despite Hamer’s problems it could hardly fail with a cast of Alastair Sim, Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael. The other, and even better, is The League of Gentlemen.
When we had only three television channels this was, for me, the ultimate wet Sunday afternoon film. Jack Hawkins plays a retired colonel with a grudge against society who decides to rob a bank. He recruits seven former officers, all of whom were experts in their fields – transport, explosives, logistics and so on – but none of whom managed an honourable discharge. The heist is meticulously planned – as befits a military operation – but one slip gives them away. As the men are about to flee abroad with £100,000 each in their suitcases (in an age when that sum would probably buy you a small island in the Caribbean), the police move in.
The film’s class is easy to explain. Basil Dearden, one of Ealing’s most gifted stalwarts, directed it. He had cut his teeth on Will Hay, one of the finest comics of the last century, had directed part of Dead of Night, and had gone on to make such outstanding films as The Captive Heart, The Blue Lamp and Pool of London. The producer was Michael Relph, another Ealing legend, who had produced much of Dearden’s work there. Bryan Forbes, who also has a leading role in the film, wrote an immensely literate and intelligent screenplay, in which many of the best jokes are on a slow burn. Above all, the cast is superb.
Hawkins, perhaps the biggest British box-office draw of the Fifties, shows his full range of talent: sometimes it is relentless self-parody, as he portrays the decay of the officer types he had played in earnest in films such as Angels One Five and The Cruel Sea. The opening scene of the film, in which he emerges, in evening dress, from under a manhole cover in the City of London, sets the tone. Hawkins has no lines in the scene: his facial movements and body language convey everything one needs to know about what is ahead. At other moments he can become the darker, authoritarian figure of so many of his other films. It is one of his greatest performances.
His second-in-command is the urbane Nigel Patrick, a much-underestimated actor of tremendous ability and concealed depths. Dearden had directed him the previous year in Sapphire, a ground-breaking drama, made the year after the Notting Hill riots, about racism. Patrick had in real life had a superb war – he ended up a lieutenant-colonel – and he plays the officer’s part to perfection.
Richard Attenborough reprises the spivvy-above-his-station role of the previous year’s I’m All Right Jack: class is acutely observed in this film, and Attenborough is quite clearly playing a “temporary gentleman”. But perhaps most beautifully judged is the part played by Roger Livesey, one of the great stars of the British cinema in the Forties when he played the lead for Powell and Pressburger in Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going!, and co-starred in A Matter of Life and Death: here, he is a cashiered officer turned conman, impersonating a clergyman.
So magnificent is this film that one wonders why it didn’t spawn a whole genre: but tastes were changing, the British film industry was on its knees, and despite the efforts of men such as Forbes and Attenborough to save it, its glory days were over. Vulgarity was an easier way to make money; and as soon as The League of Gentlemen was in the can Hawkins went for a first operation on the throat cancer that would eventually kill him. The glory was departing, but could not have done so with more style than it did here.