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Sunday, 22 March 2009

Too Many Crooks (1959)

Director: Mario Zampi
Stars: Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Bresslaw

I was surprised to find the opening scene of a 1959 comedy involves a ramraid on a high street store. I thought that was an invention of the 1980s. Anyway it's yet another botched attempt by Fingers and his gang. They're comprised of yet another stunning batch of British talent, which seems to have been everywhere all at once in the sixties. Fingers himself is a young George Cole, channelling Peter Sellers, full of great ideas that never seem to seem to work yet remaining as optimistic as ever, even in the face of a foil as sharp as he is inept.

And as fun as Cole and his gang are, which is pretty fun given that they're made up of people like Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw, that foil utterly steals the show. He's Terry-Thomas and for a change he isn't playing his usual rich idiot that everyone can take for a ride. He's still rich, as a tricky and very shady businessman called Billy Gordon, but he's far from stupid. He's successfully hoodwinked his wife into thinking that he hasn't had money for years, leaving her to live frugally while he pampers his secretary with jewellery and furs. He's successfully deterred Fingers and his gang from robbing him a number of times.

And when Fingers kidnaps his wife instead of his daughter to hold for ransom, he's over the moon. He's wanted her gone for years and is utterly unwilling to pay anything at all to get her back. In fact when they threaten to cut her up and scatter her all over the Great North Road, he actively encourages them to do so, calling it a bachelor's dream. And when Mrs Gordon overhears all of this from the room she's being kept in, she decides to throw her lot in with the crooks. She takes over the gang to get her revenge on her husband by fleecing him dry.

Once again there's a host of talent on show here: not just Terry-Thomas, in one of the best roles I've seen him play, but Sid James, Bernard Bresslaw, George Cole, John Le Mesurier, Nicholas Parsons and Terry Scott, among others. He spends half the film utterly in charge and the other half utterly floundering. I hadn't heard of Brenda De Banzie, who plays Lucy Gordon, Billy's wife, but she acquits herself wonderfully in such esteemed company. It turns out she had a few high career spots including a Tony nomination for The Entertainer on Broadway.

This is as frenetic and lunatic as The Naked Truth and fits very well with it as a double bill. Both were also directed by Mario Zampi, who made a number of British comedies during the forties and fifties. It's also as willing to play loose with reality and run on pantomime logic. If you can forgive that, it's a gem. If you can't, well it's still a gem because Terry-Thomas is a sheer delight, whatever else you think about the film. Bernard Bresslaw is a little too dumb ('£10,000? How much is that?'), Sid James a little too willing to stay with George Cole, Nicholas Parsons and Vera Day too underused.

But Too Many Crooks remains yet another great example of how comedies can be made to sparkle without swearing, violence and nudity. I'm no Mormon reactionary and thoroughly enjoy all these things in their place (as a fan of exploitation cinema, I could hardly think otherwise), but there's a part of me that's overjoyed that I can still turn to the classic British comedies of the sixties for riotous humour that I could watch with my wife, my mother and my granddaughter, even all at once.

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