The place is New York City and three people emerge from a car and march straight into an office block, pausing briefly to put their name on the board of companies who have interests there. On reaching an upper floor, they set about drilling a hole in the wall of their room, then placing a safe inside it and covering it with a picture as the premises are made presentable for a couple of American businessmen to visit. As you may have guessed, these men are about to be conned by the trio: middle-aged leader Silas (Richard Attenborough), his protégé Bob (David Hemmings) and his younger girlfriend Liz (Alexandra Stewart); under Silas's tutelage they have been trained to perfection and the money is theirs for the taking...
Only When I Larf has a title explained in the first ten minutes, and then used as a punchline just before the end credits roll, but it was a curious choice for one of those caper movies that proliferated in the nineteen sixties after Rififi had popularised the genre at the end of the previous decade, apparently making countless moviemakers believe the whole set up was a cinch to make profits at the box office. One of those moviemakers was author Len Deighton, who after seeing his work adapted to the screen in the Harry Palmer films thought he could do easily as well at creating versions of his work himself, so it was one of his books that was the basis for this, a project he was onboard for as producer.
He and star Richard Attenborough would go on to start making a screen version of Oh! What a Lovely War until Deighton opted to leave the project, and indeed the film business altogether, which on the strength of this was a pity since it may not have gone down in history as one of the caper classics, but it was lean and efficient enough to pass muster as an agreeable diversion, nothing too taxing, simply a good story well told. Actually, it was three good stories, one short (the quarter hour pre-titles sequence), one medium-sized as the gang get involved with a phony arms deal, and the main course as they make waves in the Lebanon, all of which had location shooting to provide a globretrotting sense of breeziness to the proceedings, not that the Lebanon would be on many people's holiday destinations for long.
That structure of essentially three acts was both part of the reason there was a novelish mood to this, nothing too literary but a decent beach read anyway, and also why it could have easily operated as the pilot to a television series: who wouldn't have wanted to watch Attenborough, Hemmings and Stewart get up to various shenanigans every Saturday night? It could have beaten The Persuaders to the punch. Announcing itself with a jaunty theme composed by Ron Grainer (who knew his way around catchy themes) and performed by Whistling Jack Smith (who in 1968 was evidently still whistling away), this kept threatening to turn more serious than it appeared, as if unsure of how far to commit to the comedy angle and in truth it wasn't exactly hilarious when it did.
The three antiheroes live in a swanky apartment where they share breakfasts together, but what Silas doesn't know is he is sharing Liz as well, as Bob has fallen for her and keeps trying to win her around to his way of thinking. In any other movie this would be the central relationship and main plot, yet here it's more subplot as the cons are what detain us in the main, and they're not bad at all. The first is over before we have a chance to catch up, establishing that the trio are well aware of what they are doing, then the second appears to be going swimmingly for them as Silas uses his military background to contribute to the fooling of an African defence minister that he really does have a bunch of anti-tank missiles to sell, but after that sees them in over their head thanks to an impossibly smooth Calvin Lockhart intervening, yet the final yarn is, as is only right, the most satisfying because there is more time spent on it: it could well have been the whole movie with some embellishment. Nicely done, then, with pleasing rapport between the cast, though it was never going to make the front rank.