As British cinema entered a new decade in the 1960s it was possible to discern a shift in attitude, a gradual move away from the style that been dominant in the post-war years. Previously, films had concentrated largely (though by no means exclusively) on the middle classes and the concerns that occupied them. That aspect had been especially noticeable in crime pictures and thrillers; and while it’s not without its attractions and merits, it did impose certain restrictions and sometimes led to an oversanitized or slightly twee form of storytelling that set it apart from the grittier fare that US audiences were exposed to. Naturally, there were exceptions, but they were fairly thin on the ground. However, a film like Payroll (1961) fixed the spotlight squarely on the professional criminals of the lower classes, and the result was a much more explicit portrayal of violence and sexual relations than had been the case before.
Payroll is a heist movie and develops according to the usual formula for such films: planning, execution, and the inevitable unravelling of everything. The story follows three interconnected strands, all of which are vital in bringing about the final resolution. Thus, we see the tale of the criminals, the accomplice, and an unfortunate victim all become bound together in a heady mix of violence, sex and double-cross. The opening has plans being laid to snatch the payroll of a Newcastle factory. The four man gang engaged in this little conspiracy is headed up by Johnny Mellors (Michael Craig), who acts as both the brains and the muscle of the quartet. What initially appears to be a straightforward job is complicated by the decision of the management of the factory to alter their procedure. Abandoning their old methods for having cash delivered, they choose to employ a new security firm with a seemingly impenetrable armoured car at its disposal. Naturally, this necessitates a change of tack on Mellors’ part, and so he puts the squeeze on his inside man, Pearson (William Lucas), to seek out the specs of the armoured car in order to establish its weaknesses. The reason behind Pearson’s involvement with these types is an old and familiar one – a desire to make a quick buck. His wife, Katie (Francoise Prevost), is a war refugee and a greedy woman, frustrated by her nondescript husband’s failure to make good on the potential she thought he had. A weak man living in the shadow of a sneering woman’s disapproval is a prime candidate for corruption, and so Pearson bows to the pressure brought to bear on two fronts. When the subsequent robbery turns sour and leaves two men dead, one of whom is the driver and boss of the security firm, the cracks in Mellors’ plan start to show themselves. Pearson finds himself facing the dual threat of a duplicitous and adulterous wife while also being stalked by a vengeful and suspicious widow (Billie Whitelaw). At the same time, Mellors is struggling to hold in check the increasingly volatile forces within his spooked gang. Ultimately, the sour combination of murder, illicit relationships and plain rotten luck bring matters to a head, and a bleakly satisfying conclusion.
One of the pleasures of watching British thrillers of this vintage is the glimpse we get of cities and landscapes now transformed. The location filming around Newcastle adds to the gritty and realistic feel of the piece by placing the characters in the down at heel urban world that the genteel classes didn’t inhabit. It’s not hard to see why these men and women might find themselves driven by their desire to escape the drab surroundings. Director Sidney Hayers shot a lot of the movie around run down businesses and decaying lockups, all of which add to the aura of despair. He also did fine work when it came to dealing with the action scenes; the heist itself, a brutal street mugging, and a grotesque double murder in a swamp all reveal an urgent and dispassionate style that’s highly effective.
The casting was also spot on, with Michael Craig displaying the kind of machismo and edgy charm that fits right in with his role as the ruthless gang boss. Of the others making up the criminal foursome, Kenneth Griffith probably comes off best as the jittery, conscience-stricken weak link. Of course, William Lucas is arguably even more successful in conveying human frailty as Pearson; a thoroughly beaten man who’s driven to the very edge of reason by his own guilt and the provocation of his grasping spouse. Francoise Prevost really nailed her portrayal of a latter-day femme fatale, goading her husband into crime before betraying him sexually, and finally crossing up her lover for profit. The other female role, that of Billie Whitelaw’s avenging widow, is equally powerful. The mask-like set of her features takes on a terrible aspect as her relentless quest for righteous retribution drives one man out of his mind and another to his death.
Payroll has been released on DVD in the UK by Optimum and it looks very good. The film is presented in a progressive and anamorphic transfer at 1.66:1, and the print used is in particularly good shape. The image is clean and sharp, and I can’t honestly say I was aware of any significant damage. As usual with Optimum titles, there are no extras offered and no subtitles. However, the movie itself is a genuine keeper. If you’re looking for a hard-edged British thriller with steel in its guts then you won’t go far wrong with Payroll. It has that post-noir feel to it that’s enormously attractive, and I strongly recommend checking it out.