Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Playing the fool… The Jokers (1967)

A young Michael Winner made a number of interesting films in the sixties… before success took him. Here he pokes fun at the establishment through the anarchic activities of two brothers fed up with the silver spoons in their mouths…

Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – the writers of Catch Me a Spy and so many British comedy drama classics – the film has a little more edge than some of the swinging comedies of the time.

Edward Fox looks on as cheats almost prosper...
The brothers are played by Oliver Reed (a Winner regular at this time) and Michael Crawford who carries more unpredictable spite than his heavyweight sibling. Interestingly Crawford looked a lot like Reed’s actual brother… they were not so unlikely a pairing as it seemed.

The film starts with Crawford’s Michael in the army, trying to use his brother David, to help cheat his way to victory in war games… well, not cheat exactly, but bending the rules as far as they can. Sadly his commanding officer doesn’t believe in bend-able rules and Michael and the army part company.

Crawford, Reed and Lotte Tarp
It turns out to be not the first occasion when Michael's thinking has been too challenging for the powers that be as he has also been kicked out of Cambridge University and blown every single chance he’s had to take advantage of his rank and position. But is it a failing of character or a deeper need to think originally? Or maybe it’s just meant to be funny.

David is also an under-achiever, passing his time as an architect come interior designer having also been booted out of the army. His regular girlfriend, Eve, is played by the excellent Gabriella Licudi who was so committed in Herostratrus, Don Levy’s altogether more serious examination of sixties culture – there’s a good piece on it here.

Gabriella Licudi
After a few stultifying days at home with the parents and their deb of a sister, the boys begin to hatch a plan to really shock their oppressive establishment to the core. After a visit with David’s spare girlfriend Inge (Lotte Tarp) to the Tower of London, they resolve to “appropriate” the Crown Jewels.

Providing there is no provable intent to keep the royal treasures they figure they’ll be able to escape punishment whilst at the same time having a lark and proving how clever they are… They write letters to be left with their banks which will prove their benign intent after the deal is done and start a strategy of wrong-footing the forces of the state.
Swinging London 1966
David uses his army training to build small-scale explosive devices whilst Michael poses as an Irish terrorist, phoning instructions to the police. The first device is at the Albert Memorial and the boys observe the response of the police, led by Inspector Marryatt (a superb Harry Andrews) and the over confident leader of the bomb disposal unit Col. Simms (James Donald) – a man who’s arrogance deserves some kind of redress.
Brian Wilde and Harry Andrews
But, as the bombs get bigger there’s a bit of unease in watching these terrorist techniques being used as the basis of the comedy… But that’s the gap between then and now. Terror methods haven’t changed but perhaps we take things less flippantly now?

Winner unfolds the story well though and it’s only on the night of the “appropriation” that we understand how all of the pieces will fit together.

Oliver Reed and James Donald (left)
Michael and David disguise themselves as the soldiers called in to deal with a bomb at the Tower and, after swiftly disabling the useless Col. Simms, proceed to swap toys for the real jewels before faking serious injury as the bomb supposedly goes off.

Covered in fake blood, they are whisked away in an ambulance… they over-power the crew and are free to run home and hide the jewels in David’s flat.

So far so good and the two enjoy a few days gloating as the press whips the country into a paranoid frenzy over the theft. But, when the time comes to return the jewels David finds them gone. Michael claims no knowledge and it is only when the police arrive and Michael denies all knowledge that David realises that his brother may have betrayed him.

Gabriella Licudi and Oliver Reed
The film shifts a little in tone and Michael begins to look every inch the villain. David is locked up and Eve plays a more prominent role in trying to get to the truth, using her journalistic contacts to try and tempt Michael into making a mistake.

She is helped by their friend Riggs (Daniel Massey) who photographed Michael’s ostensible alibi at his sister’s coming out party.

Has Michael really betrayed his brother and is there a way out for both of the boys?

Michael denies all...
It’s a well-made film with a few twists and turns remaining in the plot till the end. Crawford acts believably as the runty younger brother with a point to prove although he doesn’t do posh-thug as well as Mr Reed! The script from Clement and La Frenais is amusing rather than outright funny but does keep you guessing.

There’s good support from the aforementioned Ms Licudi as well as Harry Anderson and a guest appearance from Michael Horden as the government minister with the wind up him! Hmm, maybe we haven’t changed that much… making the establishment sweat is all we have left in the post-democratic sterility of coalition-austerity Britain…

Gabriella Licudi and Michael Crawford
And is the brother’s will to win not pointedly anti-establishment but just the suppressed spirit of adventure that in times of trouble have brought out the best of Britain? Even by the late sixties the belief in eth characteristics that won this country wars was still strong in spite of all the pop cultural ennui around it…

Hang on... I've got an idea...
Dusty verdict: well worth keeping the VHS for some mostly light-hearted crime capering…it’s not on DVD anyway! Michael Winner made good films and this is certainly one of them.

Ollie keeps watch...

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