What’s it about?

Payroll is a classic crime film involving the robbery of a high-tech payroll van in a moody Newcastle setting. In typical heist movie fashion, the drama comes from the fallout of the botched job. However, there’s a refreshing grittiness to the plot, filled with double crosses and brutality. The robbery itself is one of the most savage seen on British screens.

Who’s in it?

As with many British crime films of the 1960s, the cast is incredibly strong. The villainous ensemble surrounding the main crime is led by Michael Craig, Tom Bell, Kenneth Griffith and Barry Keegan. Alongside these we have a femme fatale in the form of French actress Françoise Prévost, as well as a powerful role for a young Billie Whitelaw. Any fans of classic British film and television will have a field day spotting the performers filling the film’s smaller roles, most notably an uncredited appearance from Anthony Bate.

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Who directed it?

Sidney Hayers – one of the great, underrated directors of British genre cinema. Even if you haven’t seen any of his feature films, the chances are – if you’ve seen any genre television from the 1960s or 1970s – you’ve probably seen some of his work. Payroll was only his fourth feature, coming after his enjoyably schlocky Circus of Horrors (1960).

Payroll (1961)

Where did the idea come from?

It’s based on an 1959 book by Derek Bickerton, who wrote pulp novels before committing to the world of academic linguistics and holding a professorship on the subject at the University of Hawaii. It was adapted for the screen by George Baxt, who worked extensively as a B-movie screenwriter between the 1950s and 1970s and was also a celebrated pulp novelist. A movie tie-in edition of the novel was published in 1961 by Pan Books, the noted pulp paperback publisher.

How does Newcastle look on screen?

Alongside Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971), Payroll must contain one of the most detailed screen portrayals of Newcastle’s winding streets. Whether in the city’s curving centre, the outskirts and edgelands where the heist takes place, or in suburbia where the stalking side of the narrative unfolds, Hayers captures perfectly the early formation of postwar Britain’s regional architecture and street furniture. There’s lots of location work in Gateshead too.

How does it compare with other 60s British heist films?

This was a boom time for heist movies, but Payroll more than holds its own alongside films such as The League of Gentlemen (1960) and The Italian Job (1969), as well as with less canonical releases like A Prize of Arms (1962) and Strongroom (1962).

Payroll (1961)

How’s the score?

Jazzy, to say the least and brilliantly so. The music was composed by Hackney-born Reg Owen, the famous band leader who made his name with his book The Reg Owen Arranging Method, as well as with several hit singles. This was one of Owen’s handful of film scores, the most well-known being for Ken Annakin’s Very Important Person, recorded the same year. At different times, Payroll’s woozy music reminds you of both Les Baxter’s exotica-infused rhythms and Henry Mancini’s score for Touch of Evil (1958).

Does it still hold up?

Absolutely. When given the opportunity to work in feature films, Hayers excelled in screen tension. He has a natural eye for action (something he would later apply to his episodes of The Avengers, The Persuaders! and many more), though he never forgets to build believable character and emotion into his scenarios. Hayers’ skill in quick and precise characterisation is why Payroll remains an effective thriller today.

Payroll (1961)

What should I watch next?

Any of Hayers’ films are worth watching, but certainly his classic witchcraft horror Night of the Eagle (1962) and his eerie suburban nightmare Assault (1971) are good places to continue. For a similar heist film, but by a different director, the aforementioned A Prize of Arms features a similarly tense heist with Tom Bell involved. The target this time is an army base, and the film also includes a terrifying Stanley Baker armed with a flamethrower.