The Bank Job is a fictional recreation of a famous, mysterious bank robbery
in London - the Baker Street Heist.
In September of 1971, at 11 PM on a Saturday night, a ham radio operator in
London called the police to report that he was picking up a conversation
between some men tunneling into a bank and their lookout on a nearby rooftop.
The police eventually took him seriously and attempted to go bank-by-bank in
the broadcast range while the robbery was still in progress. The coppers
called in radio specialists to try to track the source of the broadcasts, but
by the time the necessary men and equipment could be summoned to the scene,
the transmissions had inexplicably stopped. The police were then left with no
options other than to go from bank to bank with whatever manpower they could
Wait, this gets much better.
Although the police had to cover 150 banks, they did somehow manage to find
the right one, entered it, and came within a few feet of the robbers without
ever being aware of it. They left and proceeded to the rest of the banks on
their list. How could they not notice the robbers? The explanation is that the
police checked the bank's vault, found it secure, and moved on, but the
robbers had no interest in the impenetrable main vault. Presumably spurred on
by some kind of insider tip, the crooks' only objective was to loot the safe
deposit boxes, and that area of the bank was just far enough from the vault
that the police never saw them.
The robbers were not unmindful of the literary significance of the bank's
Baker Street location. Before they left, they scrawled on the walls of the
bank, "Let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this."
That's not the best of it.
In the aftermath of the robbery, the newspapers were only allowed to report
on the crime for about four days, after which a blackout was imposed by the country's
highest authorities, even through it was obviously newsworthy. (The robbers
managed to collect three million pounds in cash alone.) The national government
imposed a D Notice, which is a form of media censorship normally
reserved for matters involving the utmost national security risks. The unexplained
blackout was enough to fuel all kinds of speculation and gossip about what
might have been stolen from those boxes. All sorts of rumors flew around the
city, but without the media to fan the flames, the talk just sort of faded
away in time. Every once in a while there would be a report that one of the
robbers had been caught, but instead of a jail sentence had received a new
identity and government-sponsored relocation. Four of the robbers were
eventually jailed, but not much of the loot was recovered, and of the bits
that did turn up, very little was ever claimed. One hundred of the renters
never came forward to itemize the contents of their boxes.
This is obviously great grist for the movie mill. Not only does the heist
itself play out beautifully on screen, especially since the cops and robbers
came within conversational distance of one another, but the unsolved mysteries
of the case fill in the script perfectly. Why did more people not come
forward to report the contents of what they lost, or to claim the portion that
was recovered? Why did the walkie-talkie transmissions suddenly cease? Why
were some robbers protected instead of prosecuted? The screenwriters even
managed to locate some of the men involved in the robbery, and they
co-operated in return for a promise of anonymity, thus providing the scribes
with more details of the heist, and a pretty good overview of what the robbers
hauled in that weekend. As portrayed in the film, the items included sexually
explicit pictures of Princess Margaret, a ledger book filled with payouts to
dirty cops, and all sorts of embarrassing photos of important aristocrats
engaged in various activities with expensive prostitutes.
The movie can't be called "factually accurate," but what can be said is
that the writers were careful not to contradict any of the established facts
of the case. They filled in the public record with the recollections of the
robbers, and the rest of the script is a matter of informed speculation and
fictionalization. The pictures of the princess, for example, are placed by the
writers in the safe deposit box of a real-life character named Michael X, a
criminal who cloaked his larcenous behavior in the guise of black activism. As
the film presents it, his possession of the pictures allowed him to escape
The film's version of the story does offer possible explanations for all of
the various mysteries of the case, but they are hypothetical. The most
engaging and controversial hypothesis put forth here is that the entire
robbery could ultimately be traced back (indirectly, of course) to the British
domestic intelligence service, which took steps to inform people who would inform other people,
and so forth for the number of steps necessary to tip off the robbers while
complete deniability for MI5. Why would the spymasters do such a thing? Their
theoretical motivation was to obtain certain material which they knew to exist
but could not obtain through legal warrants, particularly the sensitive
material in the box of Michael X.
The film's direction has kind of a retro feel to it, as you might expect
from a director in his sixties. He does a good job on maintaining the
necessary dramatic tension in the key moments, but employs none of the modern
sorts of directorial and editing embellishments that one might find in the Guy
Richie crime films, for example. The style of the film is discretionally unhip,
as the director
concentrates instead on telling the excellent story with a straightforward
chronological narrative. Some of it drags a bit. The first half-hour is
humdrum exposition, establishing the characters as it needs to do, but never really involving
us in their lives and situations. The actual tunneling is boring, to tell the
truth, and the dialogue is the usual stock verbiage expected from film
criminals: "I know who you are, gov, but I don't know 'im." "Oh, Nigel is OK.
Right good bloke, 'e is." It's not a very modern film, but then again
it's about the early 70s, so it's possible to justify its retro feel as a
deliberate technique which evokes that era.
I enjoyed the film, but as I was watching it I wondered if it might have
been both an Oscar candidate and a box office smash in the hands of Paul
Greengrass. If Greengrass could make an exciting movie out of that lame script
for The Bourne Ultimatum, imagine what he could do with a story like this. Oh,
well. Given that my version is imaginary, the actual film is still worth your
time if you care less for style than substance. In spite of some weaknesses in
the film, the story is such a ripping yarn that it's a lot of fun to watch.