Monday, December 4, 2017

"THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" (1979) Review




"THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" (1979) Review

As I have stated in many previous movie reviews, I am a sucker for period drama. However, I am an even bigger sucker when said drama turns out to be something different from the usual narrative for this kind of genre. In the case of the 1979 movie, "THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY", it turned out to be one of those rare kind of films. 

Like Michael Crichton's 1975 novel, "The Great Robbery""THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" is a fictional account of a famous robbery known as the "Great Gold Robbery of 1855". Before one thinks that the movie is a faithful account of this historical event or a faithful adaptation of Crichton's novel . . . you are bound to be disappointed. Not only did Crichton play a little fast and loose with history in his novel, he also wrote the movie's screenplay and made even more changes to the tale.

"THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" began with a failed attempt by some nameless criminal to rob the gold used to pay the British troops fight in the Crimean War being shipped monthly on the London-to-Folkestone train. This failed robbery, which ended with the criminal's death, had been masterminded by a successful criminal named Edward Pierce. Finally realizing that the gold is guarded in two safes with two locks each, Pierce and his mistress, Miriam, recruit a pickpocket and screwsman named Robert Agar to make copies of the safes' four keys. They also set about attaining copies of the keys by exploiting the weaknesses of two key holders - bank president Edgar Trent and bank manager Henry Fowler. 

When they discover that the other two keys are locked in a cabinet, inside the office of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station, Pierce and Agar recruit a cat burglar named "Clean Willie" to help them break into rail office and make impressions of the keys. At first, Pierce is able to execute his plan with very few problems. But obtaining the keys inside the South Eastern Railway office and recruiting "Clean Willie" end up producing major obstacles that he and his accomplices are forced to overcome.

I would not claim that "THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" is a favorite movie of mine. But I must admit that every time I watch it, I usually end up enjoying it very much. And I cannot deny that it proved to be different than the usual period drama. Although "THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" is a literary adaptation that also features a historical event, it is not the usual period piece. I mean . . . how many period dramas are about a real-life crime? Especially a crime that had occurred before the 20th century? If there is another movie with a similar narrative, I have yet to come across it.

Even more interesting is that Crichton utilized great details to show audiences how the crime was planned and carried out. Yes, I realize that Crichton had made changes to his portrayal of the 1855 gold robbery, but I still cannot help but admire that he portrayed this crime in such a detailed manner. And this allowed me to enjoy the film even more, for it provided audiences a detailed look into the criminal and business worlds of the Victorian Age during the 1850s. This was especially the case in the movie's second half in which the protagonists schemed to get their hands on copies of the third and fourth set of keys inside a London railway station. And if I must be honest, I enjoyed the movie's first half even more - especially those scenes that featured the robbers' attempts to acquire copies of the first two keys. Since those two keys were in the hands of bank executive Trent and bank manager Fowlers, the movie allowed peeks into the lives of an early Victorian family and a Victorian bachelor, all from the upper-middle-classes. These scenes included one featuring Pierce's wooing of Trent's only daughter, while riding along Hyde Park's Rotten Row, a popular riding spot for upper and middle-class Londoners; and another featuring Miriam's seduction of the always lustful Fowler inside an exclusive London bordello.

Another aspect of "THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY" that I enjoyed was its production values. Crichton and producer John Foreman had gathered a first-rate crew for this movie. There were four aspects of the movie's production values that I enjoyed . . . somewhat. I certainly had no problem with Maurice Carter's production designs for the movie. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating Victorian London - especially in crowd scenes like the Rotten Row sequence, the bordello and the railway station. I also enjoyed Jerry Goldsmith's score. Although I did not find it particularly memorable, I thought it blended well with various scenes throughout the movie and was original enough in a jaunty way. I have slightly mixed feelings about Anthony Mendleson's costume designs. On one hand, I thought many of them - especially those for the male characters - wonderfully recaptured the fashion styles of the mid-1850s. My feelings regarding his designs for the female characters were another matter. There were some designs that I admired very much - especially those for the Pamela Trent and Emily Trent characters. Yet, I found those designs for Lesley-Anne Down's character rather theatrical. I also have mixed about Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography. On one hand, I found many of the film's wide shots - especially in many of the exterior shots - rather colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately . . . I also noticed that Unsworth's photography seemed to project this hazy film, indicating that the movie was a period drama. Personally, I found this . . . haze rather annoying and a bit detrimental to the movie's sharp colors.

I can only recall at least three or four sequences that might be considered action-oriented. Three of them involved the "Clean Willie" character and I found them well shot by Crichton. The fourth action sequence - the actual train robbery - was also well shot by Crichton. The problem is that I am not a big fan of the actual robbery sequence. What can I say? It bored me. I could explain that I am becoming less tolerant of action sequences in my old age. But if I must be honest, I never really liked this sequence when I first saw it when I was a lot younger. There is nothing like an actual action sequence on top a train to bore the living daylights out of me. It was not Crichton's fault. This is simply a case of my personal preferences.

I certainly had no problems with the cast. Sean Connery was the perfect embodiment of middle-age debonair as the charismatic, clever and occasionally ruthless criminal mastermind, Edward Pierce. I would not exactly regard this role as a challenge for him. But he seemed to be enjoying himself. The role of Pierce's mistress, Miriam, seemed to be quite rare for Lesley-Anne Down. I can only recall her portraying a similar character in another heist film that released the same year. Personally, I thought she did a great job portraying Miriam not only as a sexy paramour for Pierce, but also as an equally intelligent and talented partner-in-crime. 

The movie also featured some interesting performances from Malcolm Terris as the lustful bank manager Henry Fowler with a penchant for prostitutes. Michael Elphick was effective as the cool and collected bank guard Burgess, who accepts Pierce's bribe to be a part of the heist. Gabrielle Lloyd gave an interesting performance as Edgar Trent's rather stuffy and plain daughter Elizabeth whom Pierce pretends to court. And Pamela Salem gave a sly performance as Elizabeth's stepmother Emily Trent, who hides her lust for Pierce with a cool attitude and pointed comments. Other fine supporting performances came from Alan Webb, Wayne Sleep, Robert Lang and André Morell.

"What about Donald Sutherland?" many might be thinking. Why was he left out of the praise? Trust me, he was not. If I must be honest, Sutherland gave my favorite performance in the film. I really enjoyed his colorful take on the witty and sly pickpocket/screwsman Robert Agar. However, I do have one complaint to make . . . and it not about Sutherland's performance. As I had just stated, I found it very enjoyable. But I had read somewhere that the real Agar was more or less the brains behind the bank robbery. Also, Crichton had somewhat "dumbed down" the character in his 1975 novel and in the movie. I noticed, while watching the film that Sutherland's Agar seemed to flip-flop between an intelligent criminal and a buffoon. Personally, I found this inconsistent and unnecessary . . . especially for a successful criminal like Agar.

Yes, I have a few quibbles regarding "THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY". And if I must be honest, it is not a great favorite of mine. But I certainly do not regarding it as a mediocre piece of filmaking. In fact, I thought it was not only an excellent movie, but also rather original for a period piece. Michael Crichton may not have been that faithful to what actually happened during the "Great Gold Robbery of 1855", but I found his fictionalized account rather exciting. And the movie was topped by fine performances from a cast led by Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down.

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