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May 21, 2019



Peter Yates - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about The Man who Haunted Himself, I've been watching the old British television series, "The Saint". One of the first episodes where a car chase through London was prominently featured was directed by Peter Yates. I don't know how directorial assignments were allocated but Yates did seem to get at least one more opportunity to film a car chase as part of the the seven episodes he helmed. While the information available does not go into further detail, articles about Yates also mention that he spent some time in the 1960s as a manager for race car champion Stirling Moss, as well as being a race car driver as well.

While the car chase at the beginning of Robbery deserves acclaim, the opening set-up is notable as well. The term "Hitchcockian" has been bandied about pretty much casually, and usually by people who act as if Hitchcock's career more or less began and ended with Psycho. The scene is a good illustration of Hitchcock's explanation of the difference between suspense and surprise. An apparently wealthy man and his chauffeur leave the car parked on the street. Another man is able to get into the car long enough to plant some kind of device with timer. We don't know what kind of device this is exactly. But we follow the car with device and the men who are following that car. Yates cuts between the followers, the followed, and the timer, and wristwatches. The suspense comes from both not knowing when the device will go off, and what kind of damage will occur.

Those first eleven minutes also alternate with overhead crane shots indicating the position of cars and their respective locations, and cramped interior shots within the respective cars while they are traveling. The fabled car chase lasts about six minutes, with the focus shifting to the pursuit by police cars of a trio of criminals. Most of the shots are briefer in length, with a notable exception being a shot taken from inside the criminal gangs car, driving past a policeman, and getting the windshield window smashed in the process. It is only near the end of the chase, when a group of school children are nearly hit, that the images become a visual jumble, a quick montage of confusion. With a bigger budget, Yates was able to build on this for Bullitt made the following year, which in turn inspired William Friedkin's The French Connection.

The robbery of the title was inspired by "The Great Train Robbery" that took place in Britain in 1963. The characters are fictional. The staging of the robbery was taken from official records. Approximately 2.6 million British pounds in cash, was taken, roughly 7 million U.S. dollars at that time. Most of the film is about the cops and criminals. The only characters who are given a domestic life are the gang leader, Paul Clifton, and a former banker enlisted in the heist, Robinson. Clifton gives advance notice to his wife that he may not return home after the robbery. Robinson's insistence on contacting his wife is his undoing.

Stanley Baker, at the time a major British star notable for his tough guy roles, plays Clifton. At the time Clifton states that he refuses to be imprisoned again, Clifton appeared for me as an extension of the character Baker played in The Criminal (1960), albeit one who is a bit more polished. Even though Baker was also the producer, his performance here is almost as part of an ensemble. This is especially marked in a scene where the leading gang members meet during a soccer game. They are filmed primarily as a group conversing with each other during the game, with Baker in the back, given minimal visual emphasis. Of the cast, the only others with name recognition are character actor Frank Finlay as Robinson, and Barry Foster, better known for his turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary track provides details on the cars used in the film's opening, the various locations, and discussions on Yates, Baker and other cast member, as well as cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, editor Reginald Beck, and film score composer Johnny Keating. While I do agree with the assessment of Peter Yates as being inconsistent, especially in the latter part of his career, I think there is more to appreciate than Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. While Breaking Away was their only critical and commercial success of three films, Yates' collaboration with playwright Steve Tesich is worthy of more serious exploration.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 21, 2019 07:32 AM