Friday, 8 February 2013

The Good Die Young

'The Good Die Young' is a 1954 Brit Noir directed by Lewis Gilbert. It starts off with four armed men sitting in a car waiting to rob a Post Office truck. None of them have a criminal record, but all of them have a compelling reason to be there: they're desperate for money and at the end of their tether. Needless to say, it doesn't work out and, because they go ahead with the robbery and a Policeman is shot, all four end up dead and, in a typical noir touch, the £90,000 they died for will rot unclaimed in a hiding place that nobody left alive knows about.  

The most interesting character is Mike Morgan, played by the estimable Stanley Baker.   

Mike is a boxer who hasn't topped the bill since just after the war. He's partially blind in one eye, stone deaf in one ear and has a broken hand, a small, painful fact he choses to ignore as he is about to have his last ever fight. He has saved up £900, and the final fee will take him up to a nest egg of a straight thousand, so he can finally do as his loving wife and his battered body have been asking him for years and retire and get a job where someone isn't belting him in the face.  

Against the odds, Mike wins the fight, but this further damages his hand. The fight itself is extremely well done, kinetic and blurred and exciting, and Stanley Baker (who liked a scrap and was a pretty tough fellow) is in the thick of it, seemingly doing most of the punching himself. He looks like a fighter, from his build to his stance to his rough hewn face. I can't think of another British actor of the period who would have been so physically convincing.   

When Mike goes for a job at a local factory, a metal gate slams shut on his injured hand and he passes out in agony. When he wakes up, he's in hospital, and his hand has been amputated.  

Understandably distraught, unable to work ('there are lots of jobs you can do with one hand, but they want two handed men to do them') he begins to hang around in pubs, eventually drifting into acquaintances with other troubled men hanging around in pubs. These men become his friends, then his co-conspirators, then his partners in crime. Morgan's bad luck holds up to the very end, however - they rob the Post Office van at 11pm, and he's dead by five past, shot in the back as he tries to surrender, appalled at what he's got involved in.

It's a small point, but when Mike is shot, Baker throws himself to the floor with enormous abandon, without any consideration for how safely and comfortably he lands. It adds realism and horror to the event, and also lets us see how quickly a live person can become a corpse. It's this sort of attention to detail and immersion in a part that separates the hard men from the boys, and puts forward a claim for Baker as Britain's most prominent method actor, a kind of Welsh Brando (Marlon was another actor who literally threw himself into his parts, or at least he did until he got to fat and lazy and contrary and rich to bother anymore).

In a film that features Baker, Robert Morley, Margaret Leighton, Joan Collins, professional weasel James Kenney and visiting Americans Gloria Grahame, John Ireland and Richard Basehart, it's perhaps surprising to note that the nominal star of the thing is Laurence Harvey.

I'm both attracted and repelled by Harvey, a fascinating, slightly loathsome character who made a career for himself despite never really being popular with anyone other than the industry people he slept with. In this film, he plays an amoral spendthrift poncing off his older, richer wife (played by Margaret Leighton, the older, richer wife he was poncing off in real life). The producer of the film was James Woolf, Harvey's older, richer boyfriend ('boyfriend' is probably too soft and romantic a description: Woolf was in love with Harvey; Harvey exploited him), hence the top billing. 

Harvey isn't at all bad in this, but then he's playing a character he understands: selfish, glib, mercenary, dishonest, narcissistic. At times you feel as if you just want to punch him, especially as he occasionally resembles Cristiano Ronaldo. The architect of the robbery (his wife has decided not to cover any more of his bounced cheques; his father has told him he loathes and despises him and his only ambition is to outlive him), he quickly turns psycho when the heat is on, shooting a copper and knocking off his partners to ensure a bigger share of the loot. Good news, however, he ends up dead in the end. Mind you, don't we all?   

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