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  Prize of Arms, A On Manoeuvres
Year: 1962
Director: Cliff Owen
Stars: Stanley Baker, Helmut Schmid, Tom Bell, John Phillips, Patrick Magee, John Westbrook, Kenneth MacKintosh, Jack May, Frank Gatliff, Michael Ripper, Rio Fanning, John Rees, Rodney Bewes, Stephen Lewis, Fulton Mackay, Glynn Edwards, Geoffrey Palmer
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The plan has been drawn up with nothing left to chance, now it's simply a matter of putting it into practice. This is the night before the big day, so the three gang members, leader Turpin (Stanley Baker), the Polish explosives expert Swanek (Helmut Shmid) and the youngest Fenner (Tom Bell) make sure that everything is in place, and that includes putting the tyre tracks onto the grass outside the fence of this military base. Once that's done, they retire to the abandoned farmhouse which is their hideout, noting that the radio news on the current crisis in the Middle East indicates tomorrow is the ideal time for them to begin...

After Rififi revolutionised the heist movie in the nineteen-fifties, many a nation's film industries were inspired to imitate it, which developed into the caper movie of the sixties. Before things started to grow frothy in the genre, however, there were still a few in the style which took them very seriously (and a few during and after, to be fair), with one of the most neglected being this unassuming little item from 1961. Heading an all-male cast of up and comers was Stanley Baker, a major talent of his day who sadly died too soon to allow his legacy to endure to anything more than the cult following he has today among Britflick fans, though his works are usually worth seeking out.

Not many more than this one, which assembled a complicated crime and kept you watching on the edge of your seat when you didn't know precisely how it was going to play out: you discovered that only as the trio took the actions necessary to get the cash they so desire. In fact, at the beginning you're not even sure if it's cash they're after, that part of the plot only arises later on, though displayed the benefits of what an excellent script will do for you. That screenplay was contributed to by then-budding cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose own direction duties arrived at the other end of the decade; along with some tight plotting, the way it played out in mystery for the audience could have partly been his authorial voice.

This we do know: a military base in the British countryside is the gang's target, and somehow they have worked out a method of breaking into it disguised as soldiers. We don't know how they got the correct uniforms or the big army truck, or any other of the accoutrements such as a flamethrower that we see Baker weilding at the beginning, it's simply enough to know they are available to the three of them and they're going to do their damnedest to use them to the best of their ability. One freezing cold night in the farmhouse later, they are bluffing their way through the checkpoint and setting up the dominos of their scheme to be systematically toppled as the film unfolds.

What we are told, because Turpin tells his cohorts, is that he is an ex-Army man himself who was dismissed, therefore not only can we discern a grudge, but also understand how he knows so much about the rules and hierarchy of the establishment which as we see turn out to be a minefield of etiquette and regulations in themselves. Another interesting aspect is that the ill-feeling towards the military in the main characters is palpable in the mood of the piece, almost as if we want to see the higher ranks brought down a peg or two, something which looked forward to the social rebellion the decade was going to suffer. But mostly we want to watch the gang succeed; even though this not being a time when anti-heroes were likely to get away with their spoils in the popular culture of movies and television (the latter was what director Cliff Owen specialised in, then movies with TV stars), we continue to nurse a hope that some small victory will be achieved. That was perhaps where the film stumbled at the final hurdle, but what a way to end an otherwise fine, tense thriller anyway. Music by Robert Sharples.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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