The British Crime Caper Comedy Gets Rotten To The Core

Taking a look at one of the less beloved films in a surprisingly busy sub-genre.

It’s surprising just how many 1960s British comedy films were crime capers – from domestic aimed efforts like Crooks in Cloisters, through The Great St Trinians Train Robbery to the more ambitious big-budget affair The Italian Job. Rotten to the Core is another of these films, made by the Boulting Brothers in 1965 and very much in the tradition of movies like The Big Job, The Wrong Arm of the Law and Two Way Stretch.

It’s the sort of film that you might have found Peter Sellers in a couple of years earlier – in fact, Anton Rogers is essentially playing a Sellers character here (though he’s clearly a poor man’s substitute, despite a clear effort to make him look like Sellers) as Randolph-Berkeley-Greene, aka ‘The Duke’, a would-be criminal mastermind who is planning a robbery that is both audacious and very British in its mundanity. He wants to steal the army payroll and has gathered together the top gangs in London to put his computerised, well-rehearsed plan into operation.

The film at first seems to be about three of his gang members – Jelly Knight (Dudley Sutton), Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith) and Scapa Flood (James Beckett) – freshly released from prison and convinced by his dilettante girlfriend Sara (Charlotte Rampling) that their former employer is dead. But the film soon tires of this rather unappealing trio and absorbs them into the general story, which sees The Duke running a Health Farm as cover for his plans, while Sara seduces buffoonish military man Lt. Percy Vine (Ian Bannen) in order to get information out of him for the big robbery. But her presence is the catalyst for things going wrong, as her father (Peter Vaughn) wants her to return home to Burnley and hires flat-footed former policeman turned bumbling private detective William Hunt (a scene-stealing Eric Sykes) with watching her. When he recognises Jelly, Lenny and Scapa visiting her flat, the information is soon passed to Chief Constable Preston (Thorley Walters), who begins to investigate.

As with Sellers’ Pearly Gates in The Wrong Arm of the Law (or Frankie Howerd in The Great St Trinians Train Robbery), The Duke’s front business and well-spoken persona hides his criminal and working-class roots in a spot of social climbing and class paranoia that is very much of the time – almost all these cheap and cheerful crime caper comedies would involve rough criminals having to adopt an outwardly respectable (ie ‘posh) persona. Unfortunately, Rogers is rather less effective at this than Sellers was – his fake identity seems a lot more convincing than his real one, and there’s no gruff charm in this character, who just comes across as entirely unlikeable. Likewise, his gang are rather lacking in appeal, so the first act of the film feels a bit like hard work. The fact that it takes a while to get going seems to suggest that the inadvertent warning of the title song – a screeching slice of modern jazz that even Cleo Laine might have found a bit much and which had me scrambling for the ‘mute’ button – was correct.

And it’s true that of all the crime comedies of the era, this is perhaps the least appealing. But when the story finally settles down, the film improves considerably and becomes a fairly entertaining romp. Sykes – as was so often the case – manages to outshine everyone else as the incompetent private eye who is nevertheless responsible for exposing the plot and his subtle physical comedy is always a pleasure to watch – it’s a shame he doesn’t have more to do as the film progresses. Bannen is also impressive as the horny, useless military man who is constantly manipulated and ridiculed throughout (the film, interestingly, has a sneering attitude towards the military that you would never see today, at one point brazenly suggesting that it is the ideal career for people too stupid to do anything else – this feels like a hangover from the days of conscription, a recent memory for many and something that led to a number of army-based comedy films around the same time), and his character is slimy, stupid and twitchily nervous. Charlotte Rampling – still in her ‘posh totty’ career phase – doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with comedy, but she handles her role well, even if she is ultimately little more than eye candy (there’s an early scene that requires her to strip down to her underwear for no good reason beyond the obvious one). And as with many British films of the era, the supporting cast features a host of recognisable faces, old hands that could always be relied upon to make the most of small parts.

There is, it must be said little of the acerbic comedy of earlier Boulting Brothers films here, despite the opportunities offered by the story – an opening scene of Harold Wilson encouraging modernity suggests that there will be a political edge to the story, but other than The Duke taking the message on board for his ‘computerised crime’ plans, it plays no part in the story, which is content to be a simple romp. This lack of ambition is a bit disappointing, but it does also ensure that the film is a good way to idle away an afternoon without having to think too much. Like all the crime comedies of the era, the film has the problem of trying to make its cast appealing figures that we want to succeed while also having to have them feeling the long arm of the law – or at least see their schemes come undone – by the end. Some films handled this better than others – this is definitely not the best, but equally feels less contrived in its finale than others. However, as the characters have not been nearly as engaging as those found in most rival movies, it is perhaps because we don’t really care if they get away with it or not. It’s mildly entertaining to see their schemes at work and unravelling, but no one in the film is all that much fun to begin with.

As one of the less well-known British comedies of the 1960s, Rotten to the Core is not exactly a lost classic but it is a welcome rediscovery for those of us who have an affection for this sort of thing. Despite its faults – and there are many – there is still much to enjoy here.


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  1. “…a screeching slice of modern jazz that even Cleo Laine might have found a bit much…” – poor old Cleo getting it in the neck again {George Melly Sings Doom}. Somebody should do a reappraisal. Must have done some good stuff.

  2. Interesting that both Peter Sellers and “Two Way Stretch” are mentioned here; two of the characters in RTTC are named ‘Jelly Knight’ and ‘Lenny The Dip’, as were two of the principal characters in TWS, played by David Lodge and Bernard Cribbins respectively (the latter who sadly passed away last year). It left me wondering if “Rotten To The Core” may have been intended as a kind of sequel to the previous film, but they couldn’t sign on Sellers as the lead, as he was now becoming a big star in Hollywood by the mid-60’s.

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