Continuing our crime month with a look at one of the great unsung classics of the British B-movie.
Another relatively unheralded but rather impressive British B-movie, The Flying Scot – also known as The Mailbag Robbery – proves, like many such films, to be a tight little thriller that is very much in the tradition of the Edgar Wallace series also produced by Anglo-Amalgamated – the production company that was the absolute master of these gritty, intense little movies that have never had much critical respect simply because most critics haven’t bothered to watch any of them. These are films that have a certain down to earth quality that the more ‘respectable’ films of the era lacked, offering a particularly British and low key, cynical take on the crime film – they are not really noir as such, but instead are no-nonsense thrillers that delight in wallowing in the dark side of life. The Flying Scot is very much in that tradition, but it also has an edginess and a style that many of those programmers can’t match.
The film opens with a striking twelve-minute, dialogue-free sequence featuring an audacious train robbery. Ronnie (Lee Patterson) and Jackie (Kay Callard) board an overnight train to London, posing as a newly married couple. Taking over the compartment next to the mail carriage and posting ‘just married’ reserved notices to keep everyone else out, they meet up with accomplice Phil (Alan Gifford) and are soon dismantling the seating to crawl through into the next compartment and grab the loot, tossing it out of the window as the train passes through a tunnel, where it is collected by another accomplice. Putting everything back together again, they exit the train in London and get away scot-free. Who knew robbing a train could be so simple and effective?
Well – as it turns out, it isn’t that easy at all. This is simply the plan the exists in Ronnie’s bequiffed head, as he plays it out in a ‘what could go wrong’ scenario to his gang. Still, with some minor tinkering, it all seems plausible enough to everyone involved and so before you know it, the actual robbery is underway. But very quickly, everything starts to go disastrously wrong. It’s the little, unpredictable things that get in the way of Ronnie’s perfect plan – a guard who is celebrating his wedding anniversary and so takes an interest in the happy couple, turning up to present them with complimentary champagne mid-journey; an alcoholic on his way for treatment banging on the compartment door desperate for a drink; the precocious and nosy child wandering the corridors. All these characters are introduced and given their own mini-stories within the film, something that could have been a distraction but which in fact is handled rather well by director Compton Bennett and writer Norman Hudis – not only do they successfully flesh out these supporting figures but the story gradually brings all their unconnected actions together to help ruin the robbery plans.
Things are made worse by the fact that expert safecracker Phil has a perforated stomach ulcer, making it increasingly impossible for him to carry out his part of the plan. And it turns out that Ronnie’s information about the train is woefully wrong – the partition between the carriages is considerably thicker and more secure than he believed, and so involves a long, painful process of power drilling and sawing, the radio blasting music to cover up the noise. Ronnie is getting more and more obsessed, waving a gun around and determined to see the robbery through even though the precise timing involved has now gone to pot and anyone sensible would be thinking about cutting their losses and getting away while they still could. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that things all end in disaster for the gang.
Bennett, nearing the end of his directorial career, keeps things moving at a tight pace, racking up the tension and making the most of the confined spaces that most of the action takes place in. The sense of growing desperation – overwhelming any degree of common sense in the end – is palpable. Norman Hudis, best known for comedy (he wrote the first six Carry On movies) delivers a gripping and gritty screenplay, peppered with sharp and biting dialogue and pin-sharp character studies and this is delivered with aplomb by the B-movie stalwart cast of Patterson, Callard (both Canadians, with Patterson being something a British B-movie regular at the time) and Gifford (American). The casting of US and Canadian actors might have been an attempt to sell the film overseas but for once, this gimmicky casting actually seems to give the story an extra kick somehow, making the characters even more isolated culturally. The supporting cast is also impressive and they all make the most of their small parts, allowing the film to open itself up without ever taking away from the claustrophobia of the story. Trains are one of the great and underused settings for films (and what a pity that we no longer have compartments in UK trains – I doubt many rail-based thrillers would work in the long, soulless carriages we now have to put up with) and this movie takes full advantage of the cramped location to keep things intimate and sweaty.
Films like this come with few expectations for the viewer – no one is writing about them and when they are covered, it’s often in a dismissive tone. But like many a 1960s crime movie programmer, The Flying Scot proves to be a remarkably potent little thriller. Yes, it’s B-movie stuff perhaps – but the best B-movies easily outshone their glossier rivals, and this is a great case in point, having far more intrigue and cleverness than many a more ‘important’ movie. Unpretentious and constantly entertaining, it’s a film that delivers far more than you would expect and is well worth checking out.
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