Michael Treymane (Michael Crawford) was an officer in the British Army until he had a bright idea to better his station while he was on manoeuvres, it was just a water tower – the ultimate goal was to capture it – but he ordered his men to blow it up, thus prematurely ruining the exercise for the rest, and landing him with a dishonourable discharge as a result. Well, it wasn’t entirely his idea, his brother David (Oliver Reed) was the man with the plan, himself being familiar with the Army after a successful stint during his National Service a few years before, but he does like his schemes, and as he discusses with Michael he feels he could have a really big one up his sleeve if his brother wishes to join in. How about stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?
Director Michael Winner made a name for himself in the nineteen-sixties with a collection of impudent films, mostly comedies or edgy drama, that saw him in good stead for a career that while consistently busy, demonstrated an alarming decline in quality over the course of the rest of his life. By the time he had made his final effort, Parting Shots, he was regarded as one of the worst directors around, which was something of a pity when if you went back to works such as The Jokers, scripted by golden boys Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, from the beginning of his filmography, you could see a great promise in his energetic, smart stylings, well to the fore here. It was Reed’s idea to cast Crawford, and they would have very different paths through showbiz themselves.
For Reed, he became best known as a comedy drunkard on British television, a sad end that was redeemed to an extent by being one of the best things about Ridley Scott’s huge success Gladiator, which true to form he died from overindulgence in alcohol while shooting it. Crawford, on the other hand, would go on to sitcom immortality as the character who launched a thousand impressions Frank Spencer, famously performing his own stunts and leading viewers of his other efforts to try and discern any essential Spencerism in his other roles, not that you’d find it in his runaway stage success as the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. This left The Jokers as full of interest as you examined it for its early promise in the three main participants, and wonder what other journeys their talent may have taken them on.
This was ostensibly a comedy, yet there was a steel underneath what amounted to the sixties obsession with capers where heists were staged on priceless artefacts or supposedly impregnable vaults. Winner displayed a curious dichotomy in his approach: in one scene he would be captivated by the ceremony of the British establishment with all its tradition and respect for those customs, yet in the next he would be taking it down with the cinematic equivalent of a rugby tackle, as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether to aim for that knighthood he would never receive, or lampoon the whole set up of class and aristocracy with a near-ruthless technique. With his two leading men, Reed encapsulated the respect, and Crawford the cheek, but even so their positions were changeable.
They don’t wish to steal the Crown Jewels for profit, what they want to do is make a name for themselves, so in spite of writing letters to their bank managers about their intentions (to be opened a while after the theft has been achieved, to let the law and the powers that be stew for a bit), their stated aim to ensure the Tower is offered increased security now they have shown off its limits and weak points sounds pretty hollow when we can see it’s the revelling in their own cleverness that they are most interested in. Reed and Crawford made an electrifying pair, embodying the Swinging Sixties personality with its potential and undercurrent of sleaze, and Reed in particular brought out a real danger in his characterisation that hinted he was capable of serious violence to go along with his expert, trickster, criminal mind. Crawford meanwhile was underestimated by the audience until the last act twist, though that was undercut by an ending that smacked of cop-out; by that point, the milieu of Britain in this part of its history had been summed up with great flair, the supporting cast as much the landmarks as it was the actors. Music by Johnny Pearson (rather excellent).