Not to be confused with the more recent hilarious comedy television series of the same name, or that disappointing 2003 film with “extraordinary” in the title, which proved to be very ordinary, this is a first rate totally British crime caper movie. Made in different times, it had to show that crime doesn’t pay. The plot, planning and execution of the crime are so meticulous that the perpetrators should really have escaped justice as they would today. The leader of the Gentlemen is Lt Col Hyde who is bitter at being retired early and needs money to maintain his lifestyle and large property. The role of Hyde went appropriately to Jack Hawkins that master of the commanding voice. Having access to personnel files before leaving his post he selects a team of seven specialist ex-army officers who have shown a disregard for the law and like himself are in need of ready cash.
To gain their interest he sends each of them one half of ten fivers, a book by a John Seaton entitled the Golden Fleece, a novel about a perfect crime, and an invitation to a posh lunch where the missing half of the bank notes are distributed with no strings attached. It’s at this lunch that we learn about their characters, mostly unsavoury, and the reason each is in desperate need of ready cash. Major Rae a gentleman high stakes gambler, appointed second-in- command, is so deep in debt that he has taken to living in a hostel to avoid his creditors. Superbly played by the debonair Nigel Patrick, Rae has an upper class infliction of calling everyone “old darling”. One of the group is being blackmailed for being homosexual and needs money to pay off the extortionist. Whereas this is less likely to happen in current more enlightened society it should be remembered in those days minority groups did not have the power, influence or social acceptance they have today.
Tempted by the prospect of easy money they all sign up for the duration, as Hyde would put it, as his plan to carry out the robbery is more like a military campaign. HQ is his own spacious country house where the team is quartered. Having already carried out the necessary reconnaissance he only needs the team to acquire arms, and transport to implement his daring plan. The arms they acquire in an audacious raid on a remote army camp where gang member Captain Mycroft, whose background was dealing in pornography while parading as a vicar, steals the show when imitating a visiting general on a mess inspection. That excellent character actor Roger Livesey plays Mycroft. Among others, there’s Richard Attenborough as Lexy a wheeler dealer who needs money to keep his girlfriend in the style she’s been accustomed to, and Bryan Forbes who wrote the screenplay as well as playing Porthill a philanderer living off a rich possessive old woman but wanting the freedom that having his own money would provide.
The transport is easily purloined and brought to a leased warehouse under the name of Co-operative Removals Ltd, a somewhat ironic title considering their intentions. After the robbery they all retire to Hyde’s country house where the proceeds are equally divided and packed into eight identical suitcases. I can only imagine what it must be like to walk through customs carrying a case stuffed full of cash. There is of course a twist at the end of the movie as the police attempt to solve the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. While it might not have aged well in every regard, The League of Gentlemen is a window into yesteryear that doesn’t need F-words or special effects to entertain, just a cracking story that’s well made with a game cast. If nothing else, it is a film worth watching if only to see police cars with those wonderful clanging bells rather than those irritating ear-splitting sirens they use today.