What’s the moral of this story? Something about the best laid plans? No, I think it’s the importance of knowing when to quit. Alan Roper is the leader of a gang of small-time crooks, and he is thinking big. We have seen this kind of group dynamic before in the Edgar Wallace film series: a trio of gang members, consisting of a clever leader, his girlfriend, and his somewhat less clever friend. It makes for a fun group of characters, and it works especially well here with three great actors playing the gang members: John Thaw, Brian McDermott and the first ever Avengers girl Ingrid Hafner (largely forgotten by those who remember The Avengers, as most of her episodes are sadly missing). John Thaw was just 21 years old when he starred in this film. He had already done a little bit of television, but this was his first film role apart from one uncredited minor performance. He is immediately brilliant, stealing every scene he is in, and Hafner and Thaw make for a wonderful acting team.
Alan has concocted an elaborate plan which does sound very clever. Step one is to do a deal with a betting shop owner, Larry Hart (Lee Montague), who launders money on the side. He pays “standard union rates”, “five to one”, which means that Alan will bring him £60,000 of stolen money, and Larry will give him £12,000 in return. In order to be able to do that deal, Larry has to make sure he has £12,000 of honestly earned cash from his betting shop in the safe, ready for the transaction. Step two is for Alan’s girlfriend Pat to seduce married insurance broker Deighton (Ewan Roberts) and then Alan and his friend John burst in, take photos and then blackmail him, to get the insurance underwriter’s survey report for Hart’s betting shop, which gives them details of the security arrangements and will allow them to break in and burgle the safe. The blackmail is the moment this trio of likeable rogues become a lot less easy to root for, because they are horribly cruel to Deighton. In an inspired bit of direction, they circle around him in his flat like vultures, and later Alan taunts Deighton about not getting any sleep, because he’s worried about his wife finding out.
Step three will be to break into the betting shop, open the safe, and steal the £12,000, and then say the £60,000 crime fell through, thus stealing from the man who was going to launder the money that never existed. There is just one problem: it turns out that Deighton’s company only dealt with the insurance for Hart’s house, not his shop. This is where the moral of the story comes in very strongly, I think, because Alan doesn’t know when to quit. He could chalk it up to experience and bad luck, and then start from scratch on a new plan. He could even settle for robbing Larry’s safe in his house, giving him £800 and some jewellery as a consolation prize. Instead, he hastily concocts a plan B, which is even more complicated, involving drugging Larry, copying the keys to the shop, staging a burglary at the betting shop, including an attempt to blow the safe, calling the police to report themselves as they make their escape, and then burgling Larry’s house when he moves his money to his other safe. I have read a review on IMDB that complains about why Alan doesn’t simply empty out the safe at the shop when he blows it up, and I can see how this complex story could cause a viewer to lose focus on what is happening, but this does actually all make perfect sense. John clearly says he can’t actually blow the safe, and after the explosion it remains intact and unopened. It’s too high quality a safe for the explosion to work. But it does achieve exactly what Alan hoped: Larry moves the money.
This plan B might have worked, until Alan and John are interrupted by Larry’s wife, returning home earlier than expected, and then it turns out the combination to the home safe has been changed. This is another opportunity to cut their losses and leave, but instead they wait for Larry and knock him out when he opens the safe. Just when it looks like they’ve triumphed over adversity, the police inspector turns up with a fabulously ironic twist in the tale, which also plays strongly into the theme of how the best laid plans go astray.
This is a very entertaining film to watch, but in just one respect it is unsatisfying: the only real winners here are the police inspector, who is not a particularly important character, and Larry, who avoids being the victim of Alan’s intended burglary mainly by luck. However, we can’t possibly be rooting for him, because he’s a wealthy betting shop owner who earns a lot of money on the side by laundering money. Ultimately this is the triumph of organised crime over a clever small-time crook, undermining any kind of message about crime never paying off. Instead, the moral of the story is clear: don’t push your luck. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Man in the Back Seat (Film Review)