Once again this is a thriller rather than a mystery, but these are the kinds of stories the Edgar Wallace series of B movies did the best, exploring moral grey areas with no obvious hero character. The closest we come to audience identification figures are a group of three small time criminals, who specialise in car theft. They buy log books and keys from scrap dealers, and then find cars that are a match for the scrapped vehicle and then steal them. This time they get more than they bargained for when they find a package in the glove box containing a beret and a ransom note.
This gives them an opportunity, because they can use the package to blackmail the victim themselves, without needing the hostage. The voice of reason is the female member of the gang, Kim (Erica Rogers), who is concerned for the hostage. What happens if they fail?
“She’s frightened something may happen to the girl if we get caught out.”
… and of course if they succeed the hostage is in even more danger, because her father has given the money to the wrong people and she presumably has no further value to her kidnappers. All of this tempers what could have been our admiration for the more likeable group of crooks, who are just chancers, but in the end Kim gives them some home truths and nearly reports them.
Even so, we can’t help rooting for them to a certain extent, by comparison with their enemies. On the one hand we have Steve (Brian Smith) and Eddy (Howard Greene). Steve is a wiley thinker, the brains of the operation, and Eddy is his hot-headed associate, who is at times quite amusing, perhaps unintentionally, particularly when he just can’t resist baiting a policeman at the worst possible time. Kim is the conscience of the gang. On the other hand we have the kidnappers: Paul (Barry Linehan) in his outrageous wig, who is happy to have a scrap merchant beaten up to get the answers he wants, the heartless Alex (Murray Hayne), and the very dangerous and sinister Jimmy (Tony Garnett), who provides us with a hint of potential sexual abuse of his victim at one point. With these two gangs pitted against each other, it’s obvious who we are going to want to get the upper hand, and it’s not as if “neither” is really an option for the viewer, because the good guys are just in the background rather than ever driving the story forwards. The father of the hostage, Rolf (Jack Gwillim), is just a stereotypical rich bloke who follows the instructions he received, and there is virtually no police input into the story, so all the narrative thrust is created by the two gangs. The contrast between them is at the heart of this film.
With all the twists and turns in the tale, they don’t meet until the final five minutes, with a typically rushed denouement. We have come to expect that by now, in a film series with plots that are often resolved by a couple of gunshots and the arrival of a police car. But those five minutes really throw the contrast between the two gangs into sharp focus, and it’s about whether something other than money matters to them or not. When Paul dies, Alex and Jimmy couldn’t care less, and Alex immediately takes over the leadership role. When Alex suggests going to get the money and leaving Jimmy on guard, one comment from clever Steve is enough to divide and conquer, and immediately break down their new status quo:
“He won’t be back.”
When Eddy is injured with a bullet wound, Steve throws away everything to make sure his friend gets medical attention, giving up the chance of the £75,000 ransom money and presumably facing jail time for what he has done. That’s the key difference. One gang has honourable crooks who have a genuine friendship. The other gang will double cross each other and don’t care if they get killed in the process. Ultimately none of them are rewarded for their efforts, because “crime doesn’t pay” has to be the message with this kind of a film, but it would have been nice to have had a coda with a judge acting leniently towards the ones who did the right thing in the end. If nothing else, retaining a shred of honour kept one gang alive to the end of their dangerous game. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: To Have and to Hold
Perhaps the morally gray thrillers without any actual heroes can spark the best examples of honour when they are consequently all the more surprising. It may have also worked for Thriller’s Kill Two Birds. The most impactful thrillers are those where the human condition still somehow shines. I’ve seen the best of them in my time and I’m glad that the genre endures. Thanks, RP.
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