In a way, this came across as a much more genteel cousin to The Producers.
Alec Guinness plays Henry Holland, a meek bank clerk who has been tasked with overseeing the smelting and delivering of gold bullion to London’s various banks for 20-odd years. He’s been praised for his trustworthiness, but his supervisors don’t know that he’s been spending nearly his whole career contemplating just how easy it would be to steal a carload of bullion. The only thing stopping him is that he hasn’t yet figured out how to smuggle the gold out of London and sell it.
Then one evening, a new lodger moves into the boarding house where Holland lives – Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holland), a frustrated artist who runs a factory making cheap trinkets for foreign souvenir stands – mini Statues of Liberty for New York, model bulls for the Spanish market, and the like. Pendlebury is a gregarious sort who insists on showing Holland his foundry – he’s making a new series of Eiffel-Tower shaped paperweights for the Paris market, and shows off how he molds them out of lead and paints them gold. Holland is intensely interested – because he’s realized that’s the missing piece of his plan. After some subtle questioning, Holland brings Pendlebury in on the plan – and the plan is afoot.
The initial theft goes smoothly – Holland’s reputation lets him give police investigating the theft false leads to distract them, so Pendlebury is able to melt down the gold and ship it safely to Paris. (It helps that Holland has gone to some great lengths to make it look like he was tied up by the robbers.) All they have to do is follow the shipment there, retrieve the box, and sell the gold. Pendlebury includes a note to the souvenir shop explaining which box they should leave alone. But – the clerks at the shop aren’t quite as fluent in English as Pendlebury thought, and when he and Holland get to Paris, they learn that the box of gold Eiffel Towers has been opened, and six of them have been sold – to members of a group of visiting English schoolgirls, who are now on their way back to England.
Now, the curmudgeon in me would point out exactly what Pendlebury does at this point – that they could just let those six Towers go. The balance of what’s left over is enough for both Pendlebury and Holland to retire on. But perhaps Holland is a little too meticulous to let those six Towers go – and besides, this way we get to see the rest of the caper gradually fall apart and Holland and Pendlebury madly try to respond to each new obstacle. There’s a fantastic five-minute sequence where they’re trying to board the boat set to return the girls to England, but are stopped by the French gendarmes again and again, first directing them to buy tickets….then to pass through passport control….then through customs….then through currency exchange….and then….it’s a nearly wordless sequence, but it still got funnier and funnier with each new hurdle as their frustration mounted. Their next scheme to reclaim the Towers back in England goes similarly pear-shaped, and comes to its own slow-simmer before ultimately boiling over.
I’ve realized that I’m more used to a chaotic caper film – either things going spectacularly wrong in a violent way, or a farcical way. This is more subtle, more ordinary; and while it isn’t staying with me quite as long as other bolder caper films, it’s still entertaining while I’m watching it.