Peter Yates’ 1967 film Robbery wastes no time getting started. After an opening credits sequence featuring a train speeding through the darkened countryside, we’re treated to portrayal of an elaborate jewel theft involving a tension-filled chase through crowded London streets, planned by a criminal mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker) and executed with pinpoint expertise by his gang. Shots of watches and clocks feature frequently in this sequence, emphasizing the importance of precision in Clifton’s approach to crime, and a more subversive theme is also introduced that will resonate throughout the film: just because someone’s wearing a uniform doesn’t mean they are what they seem to be, and even if they are, it doesn’t mean you can trust them.
While Robbery offers more and better action in its first fifteen minutes than you get in the entirety of many thrillers (reportedly the chase scene got Yates the job of directing Bullitt), this initial sequence is only an appetizer, preparing you for a main course consisting of a fictionalized version of the Great Train Robbery of 1963. The train in question is carrying the Royal Mail train from Glasgow to London, carrying lots of cash, and Baker’s character is based on Bruce Reynolds, leader of the 1963 robbery. But don’t go looking for a history less in Robbery: it’s fiction, with a screenplay by Edward Boy, George Markstein, and Yates, and a cast of reliable British actors including Frank Finlay, Clinton Greyn, and George Sewell as gang members and James Booth as the policeman who leads the effort to track them down.
Robbery is an old-school procedural, expertly shot by Douglas Slocombe, that stays in the sweet spot of achieving a documentary feel while of course being much better than anything that ever happens in real life (the boring bits are left out, camera angles are always ideal, and everyone’s good looking, among other things). While the dialogue is good, much of the story is presented visually, emphasizing the materiality of the process taking place, while a propulsive soundtrack by Johnny Keating cues the appropriate emotions. Because Robbery was shot on location, it also acts as a nice little time capsule of London in the mid-1960s (specific locations are frequently identified on the commentary track).
I know British movies are often not classified as “foreign” because the national language is English, but a film like Robbery highlights (in a good way) some of the cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom. American viewers will be particularly surprised at the criminals’ attitude toward guns, which offers a strong contrast both with the way large-scale crimes are usually portrayed in American movies and prevailing attitudes in American society. Robbery is also notable because, like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), it’s exactly the kind of film that used to be prohibited by the Motion Picture Code—basically a visual tutorial on how to commit a specific type of crime (although of course today you’d need a time machine to put the lessons to use).
There’s not a lot of emotion in Robbery—the men carrying out the crimes are all business, as are the police attempting to foil track them down, but two supporting characters do provide an injection of humanity: Rachel Herbert as the elementary school teacher who identifies the getaway car drive in a police lineup, and Joanna Pettet as Clifton’s wife Kate. Both are excellent in the small amount of screen time granted them, and their characters provide a useful reminder that criminal activities impose real costs on ordinary people (there are male victims also, mainly people whose work lives are interrupted by the robberies, but they’re not personalized in the same way). Still, the lives of wives and schoolteachers aren’t nearly as exciting as brazen acts of thievery, so Robbery wastes little time in their normal world before getting back to the robbers and their crimes. | Sarah Boslaugh
Robbery is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentarytrack by film critic Nick Pinkerton and trailers for this and several other films.