Too Many Crooks
(SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.
Billy: She took one look at me, and the next thing I know, I was being thrust up the aisle.
Journalist: Up the what?
Billy: Up the aisle, dear.
Admittedly, there’s something maybe a little pat about the manner in which Lucy transitions from meek, shrewish wife to fearsome mastermind of a revenge operation. We’ve been apprised of her credentials early on, of course, when Billy relates that he met his wife in the army; she was a sergeant major and his PT instructor; later, she also gave him his start in business. Since then, however, she has been the meek, stay-at-home wife, cooking him evening meals he invariably fails to show up for because he’s out consorting with floozies. All the while flagrantly snubbing her dream of “A country house, a cook, a butler. Cheer up, old girl. It won’t be long before our ship comes in”. There’s consequently something of the raucous 1970s Disney movie, where the rambunctious kids give the rotters what-for, to the manner in which T-T is stitched up.
Fingers: She’s a fine woman.
Billy: Well, you have her then.
Fingers: I don’t want her.
Naturally Billy has it coming, but one might have hoped it would be a little less straightforward, particularly since the first hour of Too Many Crooks is so deftly delivered. Terry-Thomas is in tip-top stinker mode, and his air of gleeful superiority towards the gang is very funny. They’re led by George Cole’s Fingers, reliable for coming up with thievery ideas but lousy at following them through, to the increasingly mutinous disapproval of Sid (Sid James; it isn’t for one moment believable that Sid would allow Fingers to lead the gang, but we’ll let that slide). Making up the rest of the crew are Bernard Bresslaw, bringing classic levels of Bresslaw thickness to wrestler Snowdrop, and Joe Melia as Whisper. There’s also Vera Day as Fingers’ girlfriend Charmaine, by whom dreadful hound Billy is instantly distracted (Fingers, not fooling the blindfolded Billy for a second as he attempts to extort cash with a silly accent and an identity as Mr X, , receives the casual response “Talking about which, Mr X, you’ve got a rather nice bit of X-certificate there, haven’t you?")
Mr X: One false move and she will be cut up into little pieces and scattered up the Great North Road.
The fun of Too Many Crook’s first half comes from Billy baffling the gang – and Fingers especially – as all attempts to wrest cash from him flounder. First, they try a straightforward safe robbery, but Billy fools them into believing he has an advanced burglar alarm installed. Then, they try to abduct Billy’s daughter Angela (Rosalie Ashley), on the second attempt (posing as undertakers) coming away with his wife by mistake. Billy comes to the meet and calls their bluff: “Cut her up, old boy. This is a chance I’ve been waiting for for years… This is the answer to a bachelor’s prayer”.
Mr X: We’ll cut her into pieces. Tiny little pieces.
Billy: Well, naturally, you’ll want to make a good job of it, won’t you?
The ransom demand is reduced from £25,000 to £200, and still no cigar; Billy offers to “find my own way” out. At this point, Lucy takes charge, retrieving the cash Billy secreted under the floorboards and burning the house down before ensuring any other money at his office and mother’s is also confiscated. De Banzie’s reliable enough in both roles, although she doesn’t provide much in the way of comedy value (she could be seen a few years earlier as a kidnapper herself, in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake). Notably, Lucy shows up at the end, ensuring the police don’t arrest Billy for her murder, but it’s unclear quite where this leaves them. The gang meanwhile have split their takings with Lucy, up until the last score of £50,000; this is duly lost as Snowdrop fails to secure the suitcase. So there remains a flavour of crime failing to pay, even though the gang avoid getting banged up.
Tommy: Can I help?
Billy: Why, are you a gas inspector?
Tommy: No, I’m a tax inspector.
Billy: Ha-ha. Very good.
Tommy: No, I really am.
Cole is good value as the inept thief, and he’s encouraged to parade a series of terrible disguises and accents, including a Welshman, a plod and the aforementioned Mr X. Nicholas Parsons appears as Angela’s fiancé, “a nice young man and she loves him”. He instantly meets with Billy’s disapproval, owing to his profession (tax inspectors are “worse than a policeman or a customs officer”. He’d rather she married a thief: “At least they’re honest about what they do”).
Snowdrop: We changed hearses in mid-stream.
The best sequence sees Billy called before John Le Mesurier’s magistrate, facing charges of attacking a tramp. And then of breaching the peace (continually returning to his house as it is burning down). And then of assaulting a police officer (when he was speeding off to attend his burning house). Billy’s excuses, in consort with his solicitor (Sydney Tafler), are increasingly ridiculous and outlandish (was he referring to Bunny his budgie, mummy or money?), and the magistrate’s responses proportionally withering.
Billy: Oh, you’re French.
Fin: No, I am Finnish.
Billy: Oh, why do you speak French?
Fin: Finnish is too difficult.
Also appearing are Tutte Lemkow as a French-speaking Fin and Terry Scott as a policeman. Zampi stages the action with something approaching unruly zest, but manages several strong sequences, including an extended runaway hearse farce as the vehicle gets away from them; a sheet-enshrouded Lucy re-enacts The Mummy, rising from a coffin to extreme concern from an onlooker. While James, Cole and Bresslaw provide strong support, this is mainly about the genius of Terry-Thomas, always in his element when encouraged to be unapologetically rotten. He’s a hoot, and while Too Many Crooks may not be quite in the first rank of his comedies, it’s more than adequate.