April 11, 2017
There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen, Max and the Junkmen , Revanche , and The Robber ). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.
Perfect Friday was one of the projects financed by London Screenplays Ltd., brainchild of producer Dimitri de Grunwald. After the collapse of the studio system, new financing systems were emerging. Grunwald built his company on pre-selling distribution rights and getting financing off of those commitments. He described it this way to the New York Times in 1970: “In the past, other producers, especially in Europe, have lined up distributors in various countries to provide minimum guarantees in advance for a particular film that can be used to obtain production funds. What we’ve done is to set this up on a permanent basis through our International Film Consortium.” They had a deal where 59 countries agreed to distribute eight London Screenplays productions via the International Film Consortium a year. In order to satisfy the distributors, he tried to cast international stars in these productions, so in this one he included the Swiss Ursula Andress as the foil to Brits Stanley Baker and David Warner.
Stanley Baker plays Mr. Graham, a prim and proper assistant bank manager whose life is perfect arranged, from his plucked mustache to his ascetic glass box office. But he’s single and without romantic prospects, and the middle-class life doesn’t hold as much promise as it once did. He sees an opportunity in the cash inspections performed by the local authorities. This exercise, to keep a check on the banks’ books, is undertaken by random government officials throughout the year. Since the faces keep changing, Graham is convinced he can recruit some schlub to impersonate one and easily rob the bank of cash. Mr. Graham settles on the unlikely couple of Lord Nicholas Dorset (David Warner) and his wife Lady Britt Dorset (Ursula Andress). The Lord is a down-at-heel ponce who would do anything to replenish his coffers, at least enough to match the prestige of his title. The Lady, played with diabolical panache by Andress, can flirt her way through any difficulties, and often does. She is introduced trying to sweet talk Graham into a loan, as well as an extension on repayment.
Baker said that, “What I like about Perfect Friday is that everybody lies to each other and everybody believes each other’s lies. I don’t know if the audience realises it, but every time the characters speak to each other, they’re lying.” Director Peter Hall, who made his name in the theater (directing the UK premiere of Waiting for Godot), keeps the plot moving swiftly so there isn’t time to ponder the veracity of all the players’ claims. The editing shifts timelines from recruitment to execution, keeping the viewer slightly off balance, withholding some details of the robbery until the event unfolds. Graham seems unflappable, Nick a scoundrel, and Britt a gold digger. These impressions shift and realign as the movie pipes along. The whole film is a well carpentered thing thanks to production designer Terence Marsh (The Shawshank Redemption ), and the bank office is a glass-walled marvel, a glum panopticon in which the office drones are fully visible throughout the day. This extreme visibility is another key to Graham’s plan. He has to see when his colleague moves to a phone in order to orchestrate phone calls from his fake administrator.
The robbery itself is a precisely timed mechanism. Graham thinks it foolproof, but it requires a number of costume changes, prank phone calls, dummy suitcases and counterfeit cash. It’s quite a convoluted plan for an inside job, but whatever works. It is thrilling to see it all come off, however absurd, especially the David Warner quick changes from schlubby bank patron to stuffy government employee with starched shirt and plummy accent. He’s almost doing an impression of Baker’s Graham. Baker, usually overflowing with rowdy machismo, is here a fastidious “t” crosser and “i” dotter, his most aggressive move is roughly cleaning his glasses. But he’s wonderful playing against type, and that hint of menace and physicality that Baker can’t help but bring through his sheer presence, gives Graham a sneering malevolence that would otherwise come off as merely snotty.
It’s a show for the actors – and Andress gets plenty of time to shine. Not just a beach Bond girl, here she lets those tumbling blond locks work for her as a conniving con woman. She was the highlight of the film for Pauline Kael, who said she, “comes across as a witty deadpan comedienne. With her face and figure, the addition of technique makes her dazzling — she’s seductive and funny, like the larcenous Dietrich of Desire…” Though I can’t quite go that far, Andress is deliciously funny throughout, especially in a last act twist I won’t give away. There is no comeuppance, and no lessons are learned. These perpetually scheming backstabbers are simply content of dreaming of the perfect robbery. If they don’t come up with the cash, so be it. There’s always next year.