News came yesterday that Ronnie Biggs, the real Great Train Robber, has died in London at the age of 84. Although a popular hero in Britain for close to half a century, this is more likely for his July 1965 escape from jail where he was serving a sentence for his involvement in the 1963 Great Train Robbery than for any robbing he did himself (his role mostly limited to waiting in a car with a substitute train engineer he had found who proved to be incompetent). His legend also springs from his subsequent 36 years as a fugitive, which was marked by numerous fortuitous events and publicity stunts.
When the momentous premiere of the Beatles’ second film Help! (1965) occurred one month after Biggs’ escape, it happened to feature a rakish aside by John Lennon filmed the previous May at Scotland Yard referring to troubles with the Robbery investigation. After periods living in Europe and Australia during the 60’s, Biggs settled in Rio de Janiero in 1970, and when this was discovered four years later, an attempt to extradite him was thwarted when it was revealed that his Brazilian girlfriend was pregnant, and the country’s law prevented the parent of a Brazilian child from being extradited. Biggs lived openly after this, even daring to record a couple of tracks with Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook in the film Rock ‘N Roll Swindle (1977). An attempt in 1981 to kidnap Biggs and return him by boat to Britain for reward was thwarted by mechanical issues off the island nation of Barbados, which also did not allow his extradition, and allowed his return to Brazil. Finally, increasingly plagued by health issues, Biggs decided to return to England in 2001, knowing he would likely be imprisoned again, which he was for eight years until further deteriorating health led to his release in 2009.
Earlier this year, Biggs attended the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, the true leader and organizer of the robbery, and Biggs himself dies mere hours before the BBC premiere of a two-part mini-series The Great Train Robbery. In his honor, I recommend The Rebel Set (1959). This underground gem from Gene Fowler, Jr., more respected in the mainstream for editing than directing (he would be Oscar-nominated for editing It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1964), stars Edward Platt (equidistant from iconic turns as the detective in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and “The Chief” in Get Smart (1965-70)) as Tucker, or (the original?) Mr. T, the erudite owner of a happening beatnik café who doubles as a nefarious mastermind. His, and the film’s, plot? To gather a hip but skint trio of denizens of the venue (Farley Granger and Rock Hudson look-alikes and a pre-cursor to William H. Macy) and, along with a criminal sidekick, execute a recipe of a train-related robbery, resulting in an almost Bond-meets-Godard denouement that Biggs would have appreciated.
Featuring a fantastic jazz score by Paul Dunlap, who scored many Samuel Fuller classics among many others in his 30-year career, and great proto-performance art poetry by I. Stanford Jolley (cast against his Western swindler stereotype) as “King Invader.” (Some of his ‘stanzas’ would go on to be referenced in John Waters’ Hairspray in 1988). Another camp hipster from the 70’s who may have been following Fowler’s work was glam rocker Brian Eno, whose first album’s title, Here Come The Warm Jets (1973), reads like a riff on the director’s movie immediately preceding this film, Here Come The Jets (1959). Of course, we will be curious to see if any other riffs turn up in the Coen Brothers’ imminent Inside Llewellyn Davis.
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