It sounds like a winner — Albert Finney and Martin Sheen team up for a daring subterranean bank robbery in the heart of London. The locations, the sets and the production are all first class. So what happened? Susannah York and Jonathan Pryce are in on the heist as well.
KL Studio Classics
1981 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date January 3, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Albert Finney, Martin Sheen, Susannah York, Colin Blakely, Jonathan Pryce, Robert Morley, Alfred Lynch, Tony Doyle, Christopher Guard, Gwyneth Powell.
Cinematography Michael Reed
Film Editor Ralph Sheldon
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Jonathan Hales from a novel by Robert Pollock
Produced by Julian Holloway, David Korda
Directed by John Quested
The great movie titled Loophole is still the underdog film noir from 1954, with Barry Sullivan as a bank clerk being dogged by an insurance investigator. The 1981 Loophole, an English movie, has a terrific cast but no reputation whatsoever. I found out why in one screening — my response was, ‘all the pieces are here, but they forgot to make a movie out of this.’ It’s like buying a bag of potato chips out of a vending machine, and discovering that YOU are the lucky purchaser of the only empty bag ever to come from the potato chip factory. Loophole is a caper film about a daring bank robbery by a team of six or seven professional thieves. The actors are fine, the camerawork is good and the sets are interesting. The actual mechanics of the robbery are credible and engaging. But even with the great cast, the characterizations are so thin as to be non-existent. The drama is so low-key and the suspense so drawn-out, that the conclusion comes as a huge shock, the wrong kind of shock. It’s like looking into that empty bag of chips: there’s nothing there.
Robert Pollock’s book is called Loophole for a curious reason — the criminal mastermind Mike Daniels (Albert Finney) figures that he will not be bothered by the cops when he breaks into a bank’s ‘impregnable’ safety deposit vault. When the alarms go off, he reasons, the bank manager will just assume that the alarm mechanism is faulty. More on this jaw- dropping heist concept later.
Mike Daniels and his close buddies Gardner and Harry (Colin Blakely & Alfred Lynch) don’t net much on a safecracking job, so they go for broke on a caper to rob the biggest bank in central London. For this they need more men, and so enlist the crew of Taylor (Jonathan Pryce), a boat restorer who also pulls heists on the side. Reading the building’s plans is difficult so Mike cultivates American architect Stephen Booker (Martin Sheen). His partnership having just collapsed. Stephen is deep in debt. His wife Dinah (Susannah York) has just started her own company and needs funding; plus they have two boys in posh schools. Unable to find an appropriate job, Stephen goes in with Mike. He shows the team through the sewers to where they’ll have to drill through brick, dig through clay and blast through concrete to access the target vault.
All caper pictures are not created equal. In most the crooks are either caught during the crime or wiped out in post-heist disputes. In some of the best, an overlooked detail spells doom for them all, whether a stray bird, a dropped gun, or even a badly timed sneeze. Things really get interesting when a perfectly planned caper goes wrong, and the smart crooks improvise to save the day. It’s fun seeing men that normally avoid hard work, working like madmen in the hope of becoming rich. There’s plenty of opportunity for delicious ironies of justice and fate. If the filmmaker is so disposed, there can even be honor among thieves.
We’re always ready and willing to applaud a caper picture that does something different, but Loophole doesn’t do anything. It’s so generic that it’s almost uneventful, as if the filmmakers were trying to create suspense by having nothing go wrong and no conflicts emerge. This makes for a slow-going and frustrating movie.
We don’t learn much about any of the characters. Mike Daniels is a career crook who lives in a grand house and drives a nice car… he’s simply trying to keep up his lifestyle, I guess. Our architect friend Stephen suddenly sees a black future for his cozy domestic situation… without money, it doesn’t seem like his wife will stick to him, and a single incident of insolvency could shatter his stellar architectural career. But Stephen’s decision to join in the robbery scheme is like choosing to have sushi instead of eating at a steak house. Becoming a major crook appears to have little or no effect on him.
The houses, the cars, the bank setting and the underground sewers are all stylish, but the characters couldn’t be more bland if they tried. Robert Morley is in for three short scenes, playing totally straight as he tells Stephen that his lender’s patience is at an end. Albert Finney sets up the crime, Martin Sheen looks unhappy and the other crooks are eager. There are no complications whatsoever. The wives seem unaware that anything criminal is happening, so no direct domestic tension is involved.
The rest of the review is a spoiler, there’s no other way to discuss it. I can’t say that nothing happens, because most of the caper is covered in explicit detail. Mike uses gas detectors to protect the men against sewer gas, which can fill the tubes without warning and asphyxiate a man in seconds. But he doesn’t tell them about another potential hazard, because Jonathan Pryce’s claustrophobic Taylor would probably not join the crew if he knew. Taylor is already skittish about the swarms of rats they find in the sewer. At one point he loses his cool and shoves one of his pals. That’s the biggest moment of interpersonal conflict in the movie.
I guess it’s possible that this vault is set up the way it is, with a time lock nobody can open. It’s sealed off so nobody can get in for the whole weekend — except people tunneling in from below. The guards and even the bank manager are on site but the door can’t be opened and there are no cameras inside. On top of that, the whole vault is soundproof. Mike and Taylor’s machine tools can rip open safety deposit boxes for hours and nobody will notice. It doesn’t seem like a good way to run a bank, methinks.
The ‘loophole’ is that the vault has a pressure alarm — when the crew break through with their drills, the alarm goes off. But Mike gambles that the bank people will just conclude that it’s another false alarm, as there have been others. And that concern is moot anyway, because they couldn’t get in to check if they wanted to. And of course nobody thinks that with the place shut up for 65 hours, there would be time enough to drill in from below. Why have an alarm, when there’s nothing the respondents can do when it goes off? No cameras, no motion sensors, no redundant systems.
It’s funny — the 1960 movie The Day They Robbed the Bank of England uses the exact same sewer tunnel scheme. The heist takes place in 1901, but everything else aligns: an American architect helps Irish rebels burgle the Bank of England by tunneling in through the sewers. The first half of the story is about how they obtain needed elements for the caper, as in the wonderful Sean Connery movie The Great Train Robbery. In Loophole there is no drama in recruiting cronies or getting the plans for the sewers or finding an inside man. The heist goes off as planned, mostly, and when a man is injured nothing changes. Colin Blakely spends the whole caper observing from a window across the street. Nobody grows the least suspicious about what’s going on.
There is a big surprise, but the film doesn’t capitalize on it properly. So, the spoiler: Mike hasn’t made any preparations for what will happen if it rains. Even small showers will route tens of thousands of gallons of runoff water right through the sewer pipes they’re using. The men get caught in the worst of a flood, and it looks like disaster. They still have until the next morning to finish and clear out. Mike and the others decide to fight their way through the water, while Stephen feels safer staying in the vault and waiting out the storm. When the water goes down, he hopes to exit on his own… if the water goes down.
(Ridiculous spoiler): The last scene of the actual heist sees the men still struggling through the weirs and pipes, as great volumes of water pour in. Stephen must retreat up a stair in the vault, as the water has come in and is flooding the entire room. It seems silly for the bank not to have other kinds of sensors in the vault, to warn them that something is out of order, or at least to enable checking on the vault’s status. 1981 was not the dark ages; see the high-tech bank vault scenes in Warren Beatty’s “$” (Dollars), from ten years earlier.
One nice shot shows a man washed away in the flood, swirling in circles with pound notes floating with him. But then the film pulls a major trick, one that doesn’t come off at all. In mid- flood, we simply jump ahead a number of hours. We don’t see anybody get out. There are no looks of relief that they’ve survived, or fits of anger that they were interrupted and couldn’t fully loot the vault. Nobody laments the man who was lost. Instead, the show uses a trick transition gag that for a second makes it seem as if Stephen has drowned. With no aftermath scene, the story jumps months ahead for a scene establishing that Stephen now has an architectural concern of his own, and that Dinah’s company is flourishing as well.
It’s completely unsatisfying, chopping off the climax of the caper. We’re robbed of a proper resolution. We haven’t gotten to know any of the participants very well, and we don’t get to see what success means to them. The Soderbergh movie Ocean’s Eleven isn’t considered a masterpiece but I still like it. It has a very nice after-caper scene of the thieves watching a Vegas water fountain at night, to music by Debussy. Here we get next to nothing. The movie is over, and we’re waiting for it to begin. I’ve never seen anything like this — it’s the most uninvolving crime film I’ve ever seen. It’s as if it were directed by a computer programmed to simply ask for the angles and the dialogue, and all the actors were told to be as deadpan as possible.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Loophole (1981) is a good encoding of this perplexing film. The transfer is a little light but looks fine. With production design by Maurice and Syd Cain, there are many attractive sets and locations to look at. The engineering of the sewer scenes, especially when the water rises, is excellent. Some of the picture was filmed at the old Bray Studio, the home of Hammer. I wonder if either of the country houses we see are the famous Bray houses.
Kino includes a gallery of crime movie trailers, plus a full commentary by director John Quested, hosted by Adam Schartoff. We get a good snapshot of Quested’s impressive career as an assistant director, production manager and producer; this was the last of three feature films he directed. We learn that Quested directed second unit on the helicopter fight in You Only Live Twice and the ski chase in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They’re nice credits, but those scenes were shot from storyboards, and the ace cameramen on skis and in a helicopter would be the ones actually getting the shots, in conjunction with stunt men. However, Quested’s producing work on other notable films is nothing to dismiss. Neither the director nor the host addresses the film’s gaping lack of tension, character involvement, or the unsatisfying ending. We do hear nice discussions about the professionalism of the actors, and how they were hire. Quested snagged the top talent, and the rest were eager to sign on. It is fun to see Colin Blakely ten years after The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Pryce four years before Brazil. Everybody else either can’t make much of a mark or breezes through their parts. Susannah York stands out as nicely animated, considering that all she has is one or two scenes of uncomprehending irritation at her husband. Curiously, at the end she behaves as if she knew and approved of his wayward plan. But this is one movie where watching the character interactions nets one very little.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Fair: frustrating, unsatisfying
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer gallery; commentary with John Quested and Adam Schartoff
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 28, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson