Friday, April 18, 2014

The King’s Thief (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a 1955 movie called The King’s Thief, recently shown on TCM, a potboiler historical epic that essentially took the basic plot template of Robin Hood and moved it up about 3 ½ centuries in British history: Charles II (George Sanders, who only appears in two scenes but acts with his usual power and authority in them) has just regained the throne when he is shocked to learn that two of the nobles who helped lead his army against Cromwell (that would be Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s son, who assumed the title of Lord Protector when his dad died in 1658 but only lasted two years before he was defeated in battle and the monarchy restored) are traitors who were ready to betray him and the Crown. He signs the execution orders against both men when they’re presented to him by his principal advisor, James, Duke of Brampton (David Niven), clueless that both were innocent and the whole thing is a plot set up by Brampton to kill all his rivals in Charles’ court, take half their estates for himself and ultimately dethrone Charles and re-establish the Protectorate with himself as Protector. Charles comes close to discovering this in the opening scene when a little black notebook falls out of Brampton’s inside pocket and Charles is momentarily curious as to what’s in it — it’s a list of the 12 targets Brampton intends to have framed and executed, including the two he’s already eliminated — but Brampton convinces Charles it’s simply his “little black book” of actual or potential girlfriends, and given his own well-known real-life proclivities in that direction Charles says he understands and gives it back to Brampton. Given what it usually means these days when a little black object falls out of someone’s pocket, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wait a minute! They didn’t have cell phones in 17th Century England!”

Meanwhile, Lady Mary Overton (Ann Blyth, top-billed), daughter of one of the men Brampton framed, is getting restive in France, where she fled after her dad was hanged, and is determined to sneak back into England, appeal to the King and have her father’s good name restored (and, not incidentally, his fortune restored to her). While all that’s going on, Brampton’s coach is waylaid by bandits led by Michael Dermott (Edmond Purdom) and Jack (Roger Moore — I noted that The King’s Thief counts as a “doubles” movie since it contains two actors who later played James Bond, Niven and Moore), and they steal some jewels as well as the little black book — which Dermott thinks is the most valuable part of the haul because the 10 surviving nobles will pay handsomely to know that they’re on Brampton’s hit list. It goes on from there as Mary sets herself up at court and arouses the lascivious attentions of Brampton (to whom she loses a lot of money and a family heirloom at a table playing a rather preposterous card game), while Brampton’s men, led by Captain Herrick (competent but colorless John Dehner), trace the bandits and recover the book. Wounded by a pistol shot from one of Herrick’s men, Michael gets cornered at a tavern and forced to fight a duel with Brampton, which he loses — though Brampton arrests him rather than running him through — and eventually he and Jack end up in the same cell for a reasonably successful escape attempt even though their ability to pull it off seems to depend on the badly constructed, already crumbling walls of the prison. (“Who built this — the Acme Construction Company?” I joked.)

It all ends up the way you think it will, with Michael and Jack plotting the theft of the Crown Jewels to attract Charles’ attention (in fact the collection of Crown Jewels had already been decimated by Cromwell’s decision to break them up and sell the gemstones for foreign exchange, much the way Lenin had the imperial jewels of Tsarist Russia disposed of after the Revolution for similar reasons, and of the pre-Cromwell royal artifacts only the orb and scepter still exist — no actual crowns), Mary arranging a visit to the Royal Observatory where she meets Sir Isaac Newton (Peter Hansen, uncredited — it’s odd to see a real person other than an historical monarch depicted in one of these movies) and runs into the King, and at the end Brampton’s treacheries are exposed, the 10 other noble families are spared, Lady Mary’s fortunes are restored to her, the bandits are given royal pensions of 600 pounds a year each as long as they promise to stop robbing, and Michael and Mary end up in a clinch — their first P.D.A. in the entire movie, since the romance in these things was generally thrown in just as a sop to the female audience while the main attraction was to teenage boys either still in or just getting out of the “Girls — yuck!” phase. Shot in Hollywood instead of England (where MGM was making a lot of their big-budget period spectaculars to take advantage of frozen funds — the ban on currency exports that forced foreign companies to invest in your country was invented by the Nazi German finance minister Hjalmar Schacht and copied by many of the nations who defeated Germany in World War II — as well as actual castles and other period locations) and only lasting 77 minutes (about all its slender story could sustain), The King’s Thief is reliable entertainment — not a great movie, and not especially well cast (Edmund Purdom is a nice hunk of man-meat but he isn’t flattered by the Restoration costumes and he’s such a dull screen presence I couldn’t help but wish he and Roger Moore had switched roles), but made a bit special by the casting of David Niven as the villain. Offhand I can’t think of another film in which he was an out-and-out bad guy (as opposed to the good-bad jewel thieves he played in the 1939 Raffles and the 1964 original The Pink Panther), and in his scenes with Charles II he’s up against the master in this sort of understated villainy, George Sanders; but he’s still good, moving in a sly, oily way through scenes Basil Rathbone or Henry Daniell would have hammed up at fortissimo volume.