“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 peformance. 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 filmmaking. 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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“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (1986) Review

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“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (1986) Review

The year 1920 witnessed the beginning of Agatha Christie’s career as a mystery novel with the release of her first novel, “The Mysterious Affairs at Styles”. The novel also introduced a new sleuth to the literary world, Belgian-born Hercule Poirot. Another seven years passed before Christie introduced her second most famous character, Miss Jane Marple, in a few short stories. But in 1930, Miss Marple appeared in her first full-length novel called “The Murder at the Vicarage”

Fifty-six years later saw the first adaptation of the 1930 novel – a 102 minutes television movie that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” featured the elderly sleuth’s investigation of the murder of a wealthy magistrate and former Army colonel in Miss Marple’s town of St. Mary Mead. The magistrate, Colonel Protheroe is so disliked by most of the citizens of St. Mary Mead that even the local vicar, the Reverend Leonard Clement believes his death would be a great service to the village. Reverend Clements ends up eating his words when Colonel Protheroe’s murdered body is found inside the vicar’s study. While investigating Colonel Protheroe’s murder, Miss Marple and Detective Inspector Slack unearth a good number of suspects; including the Colonel’s new widow Anne Protheroe, her lover Lawrence Redding, the Colonel’s only child Lettice Protheroe, the high-strung curate Christopher Hawes, St. Mary Mead’s mysterious new citizen Mrs. Lestrange, small time poacher Bill Archer and even the good Reverend Clement himself. Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding each confess to the crime, convinced that the other was guilty. However, both Miss Marple and Detective Inspector Slack realize that both are innocent and continue their investigation of the murder.

When I first read Christie’s 1930 novel, I must admit that it did not particularly move me. The plot seemed like a typical murder mystery set in a small village. There was nothing extraordinary about it, aside from Miss Marple’s continuous relationship with Inspector Slack. Mind you, I have seen mediocre or bad adaptation of some first-rate Christie novels. And I have seen some excellent adaptations of her mediocre novels. The 1986 adaptation of “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be one of those productions in which my opinion of it matches the original novel. How can I say this? I found it a bore.

The best I can say about “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” is that it is a close – but not completely accurate – adaptation of Christie’s novel. Unfortunately, T.R. Bowen did nothing with the screenplay to improve on the story. And Julian Amyes’ direction of the movie nearly put me to sleep. It was so boring and slow. Amyes tried hard to make the killer’s revelation interesting. But not even that worked. Between John Walker’s dim lighting of the scene and Amyes’ snail like direction, I fell asleep and had to rewind back to the scene in order to learn the killer’s identity. When a person falls asleep during a scene featuring the killer’s revelation, it is time to go back to the drawing board – so to speak.

Also, the movie was not served well by most of the bland characters that populated the story. Most of them – aside from a few – struck me as dull and one-dimensional. Some of the best characters in a murder mystery tend to be the original victim. Unfortunately, Colonel Protheroe turned out to be one of those rare cases in which the main victim proved to be uninteresting. I found his character so one-dimensional. Not even Robert Lang’s energetic performance could make it work. The character of Reverend Clement had been down-sized by the story’s translation from the novel to the screen. Apparently, Bowen could not find a way to make his character a major part of the investigation . . . which occurred in Christie’s novel. Only a handful of characters seemed interesting to me. And I have the performers to thank. Cheryl Campbell managed to inject some real energy into her portrayal of the vicar’s younger and sexy wife, Griselda Clement. David Horovitch was at his sardonic best as the police inspector who tries his best to dismiss Miss Marple’s sleuthing skills. Joan Hickson earned a BAFTA nomination for her performance as Jane Marple in this movie. I do not know if she truly deserved that nomination. But I must admit that I enjoyed her subtle, yet sly performance as the brilliant, amateur sleuth. I especially enjoyed her scenes with Horovitch’s Slack.

I guess there is nothing else I can say about “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”. It is not one of my favorite Miss Marple productions. Actually, I feel it is one of my least favorites featuring the elderly sleuth. The original story simply did not strike me as interesting and screenwriter T.R. Bowen did very little to enliven it. Also Julian Amyes’ slow-paced direction did not help matters. The only pleasures I managed to derive from this movie were the first-rate performances of Joan Hickson, David Horovitch and Cheryl Campbell.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.