(director/writer: Michael Crichton; screenwriter: based on the novel by Michael Crichton; cinematographer: Geoffrey Unsworth; editor: David Bretherton; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Sean Connery (Edward Pierce), Donald Sutherland (Robert Agar), Lesley-Anne Down (Miriam), Alan Webb (Edgar Trent), Malcom Terris (Henry Fowler), Robert Lang (Inspector Sharp), Michael Elphick (Burgess), Wayne Sleep (Clean Willy), Pamela Salem (Emily Trent), Pamela Salem (Emily Trent), Gabrielle Lloyd (Elizabeth Trent); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: John Foreman; MGM/UA Home Video; 1979)

“Lumbers along at a dull pace.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”/”Coma”) adapts this period heist film from his own 1975 novel. It’s based on a true story about the legendary first recorded robbery from a moving train. Under Crichton’s patchy and static direction the film lumbers along at a dull pace, the characters remain mostly undeveloped, its comedy is too awkward to work and because it sets the tone the suspense part never materializes and, ultimately, a sense of emptiness prevails about the project that can’t quite make the thieves convincing as anti-establishment figures having some fun at the expense of the powerful. The real heist might be in the valuable time it steals from the viewer, as the film seemed to drag on forever with only a few bright spots. The supposedly magnificent heist, despite taking up most of the film going through the elaborate ingenious preparations by covering all the details for pulling it off, turns out just like any ordinary heist film (this one was even below average of other heist pics).

The close to fifty year old Sean Connery shuns his James Bond role after the 1971 Diamonds are Forever to play here the likeable roguish thief who is capable of brutality, having the ladies fawn over him and doing many of his own stunts (that was Connery climbing atop the moving railroad cars in the final heist scene). Four years after this film Connery would do one last Bond film, Never Say Never Again.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

In 1855, in Victorian England, dapper detail-minded con man Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) assembles a gang of thieves–his master of disguises busty moll Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), dimwitted locksmith/safecracker Agar (Donald Sutherland) and cat burglar Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep)–to rob the gold bullion shipment that’s worth some £25,000 on the moving Folkstone express (it goes from London to Folkstone and was filmed at the Irish countryside). The money is used for the payroll of England’s army in the Crimean war with Czarist Russia. To pull off the Big Job, Pierce needs the wax impressions of the four keys to the safe of the moving train. He goes after the keys one at a time: the first key he discovers where it’s hidden through deceit, by dating the bank president Edgar Trent’s (Alan Webb) plain daughter (Gabrielle Lloyd) until he finds out the key is kept in the wine cellar of his mansion; that bank manager Henry Fowler (Malcom Terris) always wears it around his neck and it will take getting him into a brothel to make an impression of the key; and that the other two keys are kept guarded in the cabinet of the dispatcher’s office at the railroad station, which requires the aid of a cat burglar. After Pierce secures the keys, the robbery goes off without a hitch but he’s nabbed through eyewitnesses. The film has him gleefully escaping from the courtroom during the trial with the help of Miriam and Agar; in real-life Agar ratted him out and the gang was sentenced to long prison sentences.

What the film lacked was bustle. It tried hard to be pleasing, but never found its footing to become substantial. In England it was called The First Great Train Robbery, so as to avoid being confused with Britain’s headline grabbing 1963 railroad heist–which wasn’t taken so humorously as evidently this one was. The film is dedicated to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who died just before the film was released. He did a good job photographing London as it would look during Victorian times, showing things that ranged from its public hangings, rough slums, gambling dens and rich drawing rooms of the upper classes.