Monday, April 17, 2017

Bellman and True

1987's BELLMAN AND TRUE is a richly detailed, lovingly composed motion picture that was originally made for British television, shown in three parts.  The theatrical cut was edited to under two hours from its previous one hundred and fifty minutes.  Despite this, the story flows smoothly, each scene nicely interlocking with the previous and subsequent.  Each scene is also a well sketched individual character study, revealing choice nuances of its players, even if the full version likely gave so much more.

I first became aware of this picture after seeing Siskel and Ebert review it on their program in the late 1980s.  Something about their descriptions, and the clip they showed, stayed with me.  There have been many films with which I've become intrigued, only to feel the mystique evaporate when finally seeing it.  Not this time.

Computer expert/inventor Hiller (Bernard Hill) is first viewed on the run with his son, identified in the credits merely as "The Boy" (Kieran O'Brien), fleeing criminals who seek inside info on the security system of a bank at which Hiller once worked.  Salto (Richard Hope) had hired Hiller to steal a disc with such info. some time back, but it proved to be unreadable code.  Not too much later, Salto and associates apprehend and hold Hiller and his boy hostage in an abandoned house, demanding the info be translated. Salto is a bad guy, but he's written to not be without a certain charm and polish.  He repeatedly calls Hiller "dear heart".

Salto also repeatedly assures Hiller that he'll release him as soon as the job is completed.  But then he realizes he needs the poor guy, whose wife has just left him, to help the team recruited to pull off a twelve million pound heist at said bank.  In what is probably my favorite scene in the movie, Hiller explains to the "bellman", slang for an expert in alarm systems, what sort of counter measures are necessary to beat this most elaborate of security stables. The scene reveals not only the characters' (and screenwriter Desmond Lowden, adapting his novel) intelligence, but also treats viewers like  informed co-conspirators, sharp enough to follow the minitiuae.

Hiller's skills render him the new bellman, and a nail biting heist, beautifully directed from start to finish by Richard Loncraine, will follow.  It's quite ingenious and suspenseful, a worthy heir to everything from RIFFIFI to THIEF.  But BELLMAN AND TRUE is more than just its centerpiece.  There are many quiet scenes of dialogue, each entirely compelling that advance the plot while likewise creating strong portraits.  Hill is mighty fine in his role.  Even though some characters are seen briefly, they are quite vivid, including a prostitute named Anna (Frances Tomelty) given to watch out for the boy.   Loncraine's film, with its great use of locations throughout London, is also commendably unpredictable, though I was a wee bit disappointed by the climax, which seemed somewhat standard compared to what came before - including a raucous getaway involving a doomed vintage Jaguar.

BELLMAN AND TRUE is one of several efforts produced by Handmade Films, founded by George Harrison and Denis O'Brien.  Some of their other films include WITHNAIL AND I,  TIME BANDITS, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and Loncraine's THE MISSIONARY.  As with the others the mark of quality and patient craft is in just about every frame. Cheers!

P.S. The closing credits are quite lovely.
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