From its enticingly lurid opening credits crawl onwards, Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young (1954) is one of the more striking additions to the postwar crime drama canon. As tough, moralistic and irony-laced as its title, Gilbert’s film – like Jules Dassin’s more celebrated Night and the City (1950) before it – mobilises noir tropes in a British context, while offering some sharp commentary on the society of its time.
The picture derives from a US source: Richard Macaulay’s heist-themed novel. But, reuniting after their collaboration on the previous year’s controversial gang drama Cosh Boy, Gilbert and co-screenwriter Vernon Harris shift the story from America to a seedy London where four contrasting male protagonists are linked by their war experiences and financial woes.
Stanley Baker’s Mike is an injured boxer who loses his savings due to the actions of his miscreant brother-in-law (Cosh Boy’s James Kenney, trouble-making again). Richard Basehart’s ex-GI Joe arrives from the US to wrest his wife Mary (Joan Collins) from the control of her mother (Freda Jackson). John Ireland’s airman Eddie finds himself cuckolded by his wife Denise (Gloria Grahame). And Laurence Harvey’s Rave is a pleasure-loving posh boy alienating his wife (Margaret Leighton) with his affairs and gambling. It’s Rave, the ringleader, who convinces the men to help execute his plan of robbing a delivery van of £100,000.
Beginning on the night of the crime, and structured as a series of flashbacks detailing what led each character to this compromised point, it’s hard not to see The Good Die Young as a potential influence on Reservoir Dogs (1992). The film’s Anglo-American basis is neatly encapsulated in its casting, with two Brits and two Americans comprising the central quartet, and a supporting cast made up of actors from both countries.
Accentuated by Georges Auric’s strident score, an air of fatalism hangs over the proceedings from the off, with a portentous voiceover setting the scene. As the film gradually brings the protagonists together (their meetings take place in that most British of locales: the pub) so it explores their dilemmas with clear elements of social critique.
As such, The Good Die Young might be termed kitchen sink noir, with the crime aspects of its plot anchored by convincing British social details. Sensitivity to the men’s personalities and predicaments distinguishes the film, with more attention paid to their particular circumstances than to the crime itself. The film’s domestic confrontations are as urgent as the heist sequence, whether it’s Joe verbally tussling with his mother-in-law over Mary, the threat of poverty consuming Mike and his wife Angela (René Ray), or Eddie confronting Denise about her adultery.
Most barbed of all is Rave’s gentleman’s-club encounter with his father Sir Francis (Robert Morley), whom he appeals to for cash. “I don’t hate you,” Francis reassures his scrounging son, before going in for the kill: “I loathe and despise the very sight of you.” Complementing the American sass of the Ireland/Grahame confrontations, there’s a particularly British flavour to this scene, its viciousness accentuated by the clipped tones of the delivery and the genteel setting.
What further connects the protagonists, British and American alike, is a sense of shared grievance about their lot – one which Rave is able to cynically exploit to get the men involved in his scheme, but which the film doesn’t dismiss, either. “They waved and welcomed us back but what else did they ever do for us?” Rave asks the others, presenting the crime as payback for their shoddy treatment after the war. When Eddie admits “The army told me not to think for myself and now I can’t anymore,” the film captures a sense of generational disaffection. The new Blu-ray edition makes these elements even more explicit by including the extended ‘export’ version of the film, which features further anti-establishment comments tellingly snipped from the British cut.
Equally important, and as carefully contrasted as the male protagonists, are the film’s women. Ray radiates tender concern and Leighton appraising intelligence, while Collins, here at her most winsome, conveys Mary’s sense of entrapment between two pushy personalities. Grahame, playing the closest the film has to a femme fatale, brings a quirky spirit to her scenes. Baker’s powerfully physical performance constitutes one of his most sympathetic tough guys, while Harvey begins by making Rave’s roguishness amusing – he kisses his wife with one eye firmly fixed on her cheque book – but becomes truly chilling as the extent of his character’s corruption is revealed.
Inevitably, perhaps, the film arrives at the kind of no-honour-among-thieves climax that The Ladykillers would parody a year later, but which is nonetheless punchily delivered, with cinematographer Jack Asher providing a suitably shadowy ambience for a great underground station chase. The narrator supplies a moral – not to be divulged here – but Gilbert and Harris are smart enough to end the film on a question that ironises any certainties.
“We were all good boys once,” Baker’s Mike ruefully observes in an early scene. What’s compelling about The Good Die Young is its shrewd attention to the social circumstances that may make morality difficult to maintain.