A Prize of Arms

A Prize of Arms

We are all used to seeing heist films that focus so intently on preparation that when the final execution of the crime comes along it almost seems like an afterthought. Ringo Lam‘s City on Fire is one example, Michael Mann‘s Heat is another while Noel Black‘s A Man, a Woman and a Bank with its remote-controlled cars and monkeyed-with elevators is perhaps the cine qua non of break-ins. As such it’s a real joy to stumble across a film like A Prize of Arms which wastes no time at all with planning, rather it chooses to burst right into the action. We are quickly introduced to a trio of demobbed soldiers working on some sort of robbery but the film is so pregnant with kinetic energy, and the protagonists so busy looking over their shoulders it’s not until half way through we even find out what they plan on stealing and just how they are going to do it.

The proposition, it turns out, is a real doozie: to rob the army barracks pay office on the day before the battalion ships out, when the safe is just bursting with cash. Taking the lead of the three man crew is the ever-dependable Stanley Baker and he has clearly put the hours in: somehow laying his hands on military police uniforms, army lorries, explosives and even a flamethrower. But something must always stand in the way of the perfect plan and in this case it is our old friend the human element.

His two compatriots are Helmut Schmid, an explosive expert whose Polish accent is so thick he must feign muteness when interacting with the barracks squaddies and a young Tom Bell who, when not sneaking shots of brandy behind Baker’s back, is losing his temper at some imagined sleight. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

The plan holds together remarkably well however, not least because Baker proves superbly unruffled in a crisis, demonstrating a knack for thinking on his feet. The movie itself stumbles just for a moment or two toward the one hour mark because part of the gang’s conceit rests in them waiting until nightfall to carry out the robbery so there’s some anxious loafing around and one or two silly scrapes but when the movie gets going it really gets going. The last half hour is edge-of-the-seat stuff (swept along by a muted trumpet score that would not be out of place in one of Jean Pierre Melville‘s crime capers) while the robbery itself is so clever that you can easily find yourself cheering these thieves on to the very end.

A Prize of Arms

The script is a product of a young Nic Roeg, fully a decade before his directorial debut with Performance and it’s a real triumph. In addition the directing is taut and barely wastes a frame. The man responsible, Cliff Owen, helmed the fun crime caper The Wrong Arm of the Law the following year then fell into television and finished his career directing British sex comedies (well you gotta take what you can get) which is a pity as some of the flourishes he showed here are excellent. Recommended.

A Prize of Arms – directed by Cliff Owen (1962)

In Short
Three demobbed soldiers launch a daring robbery inside an army barracks.
Opening credits here