Friday, 21 March 2014

The Jokers

The Jokers (1967)

Starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed

Directed by Micahel Winner

Although he's probably best known now for those "Calm down dear" insurance adverts, in which he appeared before he passed away in 2013, there was one a time when Michael Winner used to make films, most infamously the Charles Bronson vigilante movie "Death Wish" and its two sequels, and one or two were rather good, particularly his comedies of the 60s. His last film, "Parting Shots" was in 1998.  His direction here is vibrant and with a deftness one doesn't normally associate with him. "The Jokers" is a jaunty little caper movie with a wicked sense of humour and an engaging twisty-turny plot. The script, by veteran scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, whose partnership ranges from "Porridge" and "The Likely Lads" to "The Commitments" and "The Bank Job", by way of uncredited rewrite work on faux Bond film "Never Say Never Again", contains some priceless lines, including a couple which only an Englishman could find funny ("I was in the same house as his newphew.  He was an idiot too... Roger Gurney-Simms.  Went off to Tanganiyka and the bl**dy place became independent as soon as he got there!")

I remember when I was about 5 years old I saw a film about two soldiers (sic) who steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Latterly, I didn't remember much about it (obviously) or even what it was called, only that I enjoyed it. So I was pleasantly surprised recently, when I stayed to watch the late movie on telly one night and it all came flooding back... Quite why I would have loved "The Jokers" so much when I was five is beyond me, as most of the humour would have probably gone straight over my head. I must have loved the ingenuity of the brothers' scheme and the twists at the closing stages. But then, this movie is so incredibly easy to like - it rattles along at a cracking pace, it looks like a tourist film of London, it's a pleasing thriller, and it's pretty funny to boot. There are many advances in technology which would render crucial details of the plan unworkable today, making the movie very much a product of its times; but baby, what times! The Swinging London of the late 60s, as so affectionately sent up in the "Austin Powers" flicks, is presented here as decadently appealing, if shallow, an endless round of booze and birds. If there's any sour note it is that the "system" which the brothers want to ridicule seems to have been very kind to them along the way. But it's hardly a film to be making profound political statements, so one can't complain. Instead just sit back and enjoy this superbly entertaining little sparkler, as much fun now as it was when I was five years old!

Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed play two brothers, Michael and David Tremayne.  Michael is in the army, whilst David seems to do nothing but womanising his way around the aforementioned Swinging London, dining in fine restaurants, hanging out in nightclubs, and attending parties.  When David plays a prank on Michael which sabotages a training exercise on Salisbury Plain, Michael is drummed out of his regiment.  On his return to London, David suggests that they make "a grand gesture".  After scouting London for suitable targets, they hit upon the idea of stealing the Crown Jewels from the White Tower, but later returning them to the authorities.  The point is not for the robbery to be about profit, but to shock "the establishment" and show up how lax the security is.  They phone in a bogus bomb threat and gain entry to the tower posing as army bomb disposal officers, before staging an explosion and escaping in an ambulance.

The robbery itself occurs relatively early on in the film; the fun part is what happens when the time comes to hand the jewels over.  Double-crossing occurs and the Police desperately try to catch their suspect.  Crucially, at this stage the film keeps its audience guessing, and the outcome is genuinely unexpected (although I have to admit, the final moments are a little silly).  Crawford is charming and funny - although this is no "Condorman"! - whilst Reed is charismatic, if a little gruff.  They are ably supported by, amongst others, Harry Andrews, Michael Horden, Brian Wilde, Warren Mitchell, and Edward Fox.

There's a distinct sense of time and place about "The Jokers".   It's (what I believe is known as) an enjoyable romp.  For a caper movie it's original and memorable.  If you should happen upon it, it's well worth a watch.

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