One of the best gangster films I’ve ever seen is Robbery (1967.) A recent re-watching reminded me of its quality and I’m amazed that the movie isn’t regularly ranked along with other classics of the 60s like Get Carter and The Italian Job.
The film was directed by Peter Yates, and the story goes that it so impressed Steve McQueen that it prompted him to get together with Yates the following year in Bullitt. The story of Robbery was clearly inspired by the Great Train Robbery four years earlier, but the details and characters are heavily fictionalised. The scriptwriters included George Markstein, best known for his work on ‘The Prisoner’, and Edward Boyd, who wrote the tv show ‘The View from Daniel Pike’, later turned into book form by Bill Knox.
The cast reads like a Who’s Who of sixties British acting talent. Stanley Baker plays Paul Clifton, the criminal mastermind. Baker was a superb actor, knighted by Harold Wilson shortly before his untimely death at the age of 48. His co-conspirators include Barry (‘Van Der Valk’) Foster, George (‘Special Branch’) Foster, Frank (‘Casanova’) Finlay, and Ken (‘Coronation Street’) Farrington. In an uncredited bit part one can spot the young Robert Powell. The cop on Clifton’s trail is James Booth, someone who seemed at the time to be destined for stardom; it seems that booze and bad career decisions prevented this charismatic actor from fulfilling his potential. Booth turned down the role of Alfie, just as Baker had earlier snubbed the chance to play James Bond….
The style of the film is akin to that of a documentary. The pace is brisk, and the mood unsentimental, and there is no lack of tension as the plot unfolds. There have been very few better heist movies in the history of British cinema.