Before watching the movie:
The synopsis I saw sounds straightforward enough: a band of crooks pretty much have all they need, but enjoy stealing things too much to give it up, so they use what they steal to help the poor. Sounds like Robin Hood as done by eccentric genteel Terry-Thomas. And then the poster complicates things. Is the gang seducing young women out of their fur coats and then running off with them? That’s the best interpretation I can make of it. It’s entirely likely that the artist and marketing manager got carried away with “Terry-Thomas looking like a scoundrel, but with something sexy to catch the eye”.
Still, this looks like it has the potential to be a very different Terry-Thomas from the type I know him to play.
After watching the movie:
Flatmates Maj. Rayne (Ret.), Nanette Parry, and Pinkie Pinkerton aren’t fond of the boredom life has placed them in, nor of sharing Dame Beatrice’s apartment together. Dame Bea is unhappy as well, despairing of her charity work that’s only spent her fortune while doing more to line the pockets of fundraiser committees than help people. When the maid, Lily, overhears the neighbor couple arguing over an expensive mink stole that the wife would rather be thrown away than accept as a guilt gift, it seems quite natural to relieve them of it to try to cheer up Dame Bea. However, Dame Bea refuses it, fearing Lily’s gone back to her old criminal ways. In order to keep Lily out of jail, Bea conspires with her lodgers to sneak the stole back into the neighbors’ apartment without Lily or the neighbors knowing. Thrilled by the reverse heist, the old folks decide they’d like to try stealing furs instead, but with the proceeds going to Dame Bea’s favorite charities. Just so long as they can keep it secret from the police, Lily, and her new policeman boyfriend.
What the descriptions I encountered failed to prepare me for was that the fur-knicking gang Terry-Thomas’s character was leading was a bunch of post-middle aged women, which just made it more delightful. The women being inexperienced, short of confidence, and doing their bumbling best to pull off these brazen scams generate a slightly different tone than a bunch of retired men would. For the time, this seems rather progressive, with the women scraping by and becoming fairly decent at their new line of work. It might be detracted from by having a man leading them, but he’s more strategizing and organizing them than leading. From a certain perspective, they’re all more or less equal, but if anyone is really in charge it’s Dame Bea.
I’m used to Terry-Thomas playing the comic relief, but he’s very straight-laced here, brimming with military efficiency. The real comic relief (though the whole gang get their moments) is nervous, scatterbrained Pinkie. She’s really not suited for this sort of thing, but she enjoys it and dearly doesn’t want to be left out.
The way this film handled the suspense, I was unsure for most of it whether they’d actually avoid getting caught. I was certain that even if they did get jailed, it would be handled lightly, like in The Producers, but whatever it was, they just kept the end from being a foregone conclusion very well. Even during the climactic scene, I could see it going two or three different ways with varying levels of success.
What makes this film work is the combination of wit, suspense, and misfitted characters bonding over their criminal adventures. I went into it somewhat imagining another Fitzwilly, and in the end almost all the ways I expected it to be similar weren’t and some ways I thought it would differ actually paralleled well. A fun and surprising adventure in mischief.