Friday, 17 May 2013

A Prize Of Arms

'A Prize Of Arms' is a 1962 crime thriller directed by Cliff Owen, starring Stanley Baker. A taut, taciturn heist film, there's no big build up, no villains pushing toy cars around a map. Instead, three men, who we will learn virtually nothing about, will rob the Army of £100,000 of pay, using a well thought out plan which we do not know in advance. It's an interesting and intriguing take on a familiar set up.

Baker, left profile.

The magnificent Stanley Baker plays Turpin, the leader of the men. He used to be a soldier, until he was caught operating a black market Coffee scam in Hamburg with Con (Helmut Schmid), a Pole, and the second member of the group. Turpin was given an immediate dishonourable discharge - no pay off, no pension, no nothing - 'just three holes on each shoulder where the pips used to be''Did you used to be an officer?' says a surprised Fenner (Tom Bell), the third man in the gang, 'I bet you were a right bastard'


Con is a long time associate and friend of Turpin. Fenner is new to the gang and we find out very little about him other than he carries a hip flask and loses self control very easily under pressure, something of a disadvantage for a career criminal.

The job is to rob the payroll for an Expeditionary Force about to be shipped overseas to deal with one of those international incidents that Britain seems to constantly find itself embroiled in. The gang have the uniforms and the ordnance to slip into the camp where the money is held, and then try not to make themselves conspicuous until the right moment. The Army mentality, which Turpin clearly knows inside out, helps them along - squaddies mind their own business, and are forever being messed about by things they had no prior knowledge of. Paperwork is always wrong, unneccessary work is always being carried out, you're always being interrupted by some bloke you don't know, so the gang are able to make their preparations avoiding suspicion, although not avoiding vaccinations and washing up duty.  

Two determined men, one moaner.

The camp itself is a fantastic place to spot emerging British talent. Well, let's amend that to emerging British actors, as not all of them are much cop. As well as the splendidly indecipherable Patrick Magee (actually Irish, but we'll claim him), there's also Rodney Bewes, Fulton MacKay, Jack May, Dave out of 'Minder', Haskins out of 'The Sweeney', Geoffrey Palmer, Stanley Meadows, Hammer favourite Michael Ripper and Arthur AND Inspector Blakey out of 'On The Buses'. Marvellous. 

Magee shouts something, not sure what.

'I'll get you, Baker!'
The plan works well. Dressed as MP's, the three men burst into the Payroll office as it is closing and say a fire has been reported. Evacuating the building, they start a fire with a flame thrower (operated for real by Baker who looks like he's having the time of his life) before blowing the safe and making off with the cash in the confusion. Saying too much more would spoil the story, but lets just say that Baker knows what he's doing, even if it does lead to a lot of tension and nail biting on his colleagues behalf, especially when the top brass eventually work out what's going on.

'Yes, bit of a flap, I'm afraid, some bounders gone orf with all the wages'
As the film speeds towards a nihilistic finale, Baker gets to torch a couple of jeeps with his flamethrower, and Bell finally cracks and starts screeching. I won't tell you what happens in the end but, needless to say, in 1962 getting away with a load of public money simply didn't happen. Except in real life.

Fiery Getaway.

He's enjoying that.

Love Is In The Air? No, Death.
A more than decent attempt at something different, the original idea came partly from director in waiting Nicolas Roeg. The way the details of the robbery unfold is extremely well done, and keeps the viewer interested at all times. Good cast, great spare, spooky jazz music from Robert Sharples (mainly just trumpet and electric guitar) and Stanley Baker is his usual strong, sardonic, driven self. His characters philosophy is straightforward, borne out of disgrace and dishonour and disappointment:

'if you want something in this world, you just have to go and take it'.

As he finds out, taking it is one thing; keeping it entirely another.

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