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Rotten to the Core (1965)

This crime comedy begins with three small time criminals - Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith), Scapa Flood (James Beckett) and Jelly Knight (Dudley Sutton) - about to be released from Wormwood Scrubs prison. Their gang's mastermind is Randolph Berkeley-Greene, nicknamed "The Duke" (Anton Rodgers). But he is still on the outside, having provided himself with a cast iron alibi for their last job.

On their release from prison, his three accomplices go looking for him so they can claim their share of the proceeds from the robbery. But the Duke's girlfriend Sara (Charlotte Rampling) has some bad news. She tells them that he has died after a long illness, and the money they are owed has all been spent on medical bills. She takes them to the local cemetery and shows them his burial plot. Appropriately enough for a professional crook, his tombstone is inscribed with the words "He took things as he found them".

Without their gang's mastermind, Lenny, Jelly and Scarpa attempt to come up with their own criminal schemes, all of which end in disaster. But the three men become suspicious that the Duke is not dead after all, when Lenny thinks he sees him at a bus station, boarding a bus for Longhampton. Meanwhile, Sara's wealthy father, Sir Henry Capell (Peter Vaughan), is also suspicious. He wants to know what his daughter is up to and thinks that she is involved with a dubious boyfriend. So he hires a private eye, William Hunt (Eric Sykes), to keep tabs on her.

Eventually the three ex-cons find the Duke alive and well and posing as the head doctor at a health farm, the Hope Springs Nature Clinic. He is planning to steal almost a million pounds of army wages intended for soldiers taking part in a NATO exercise at the military base nearby. His girlfriend Sara has been cultivating a military police officer, Lieutenant Vine (Ian Bannen), who will be guarding the money. All the gang need to steal the loot is a hearse, a fake general and a borrowed army tank.


Rotten to the Core 1965 film poster
Original poster for "Rotten to the Core"

Rotten to the Core was directed and produced by the brothers John and Roy Boulting. The two men had tackled a variety of film genres and made many serious dramatic films in the 1940s and 1950s, including the anti-Nazi drama Pastor Hall (1940), anti-isolationist fantasy Thunder Rock (1942), crime drama Brighton Rock (1947) and the atomic thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950).

In the late 1950s, though, they became especially associated with comedy, making a series of sharp satires on British life. Between 1956 and 1963, the Boultings took on various British institutions - the army (in Private's Progress), the law (Brothers in Law), academia (Lucky Jim), the Foreign Office (Carlton-Browne of the F.O.), industry and the trade unions (I'm All Right, Jack) and the Church (Heavens Above!). But the Boultings began to flounder in the mid-1960s and there are clear signs of that in Rotten to the Core

Crime capers were very popular in the movies in this decade, probably partly because criminal protagonists could be presented as anti-establishment heroes and partly because relaxations in censorship meant that they might now even be allowed to get away with their crimes.

But a crime comedy seems a little obvious and predictable as subject matter for the Boulting brothers and it lacks the opportunities for satire that their earlier films provided. Crime comedies were also firmly established as a British cinema standby at this time, meaning that Rotten to the Core would struggle to bring anything new to the genre.

The film was written by Jeffrey Dell, Roy Boulting, John Warren and Len Heath and based on an idea by Warren and Heath. Jeffrey Dell was a regular collaborator with the Boultings, including on Thunder RockBrothers in Law and Carlton-Browne of the F. O., while John Warren and Len Heath were the writing team behind the classic Peter Sellers comedy Two Way Stretch (1960) and the original script for another Sellers comedy The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963).


Kenneth Griffith and Anton Rodgers
Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith) with The Duke (Anton Rodgers)

There are clear similarities between those two films and Rotten to the Core. Rotten to the Core even begins by looking like a variation on Two Way Stretch, with three criminals behind bars while the mastermind behind their crime ("The Duke" in this film, "Soapy" Stevens played by Wilfrid Hyde-White in Two Way Stretch) is on the outside, thanks to his watertight alibi.

Two of the gang in Rotten to the Core even have the same names as characters from Two Way Stretch - Jelly Knight (played by David Lodge in Two Way Stretch) and Lenny the Dip (Bernard Cribbins in the same film). There's also a character called Anxious O'Toole, who is obviously a relation of gang boss Nervous O'Toole, who was played by Cribbins in The Wrong Arm of the Law. All of this raises the intriguing possibility of a Warren & Heath "shared universe" of crime films, long before Marvel got there with their superheroes.

There are also plot similarities with the earlier films, with the Duke using a health spa as a cover, rather like Peter Sellers as crime boss Pearly Gates in The Wrong Arm of the Law, whose cover is an upmarket women's fashion boutique. And the gang's big job, like Two Way Stretch, involves a raid on a security van, although in this case it's loaded with an army payroll instead of diamonds. 

But the melding of John Warren and Len Heath's style of crime comedy with the Boulting brothers' satire is not all that comfortable in Rotten to the Core and as a comedy it's a decidedly mixed bag. There are some funny bits and a few laughs, but other jokes fall flat. There are also some signs of a slight coarsening of the Boultings' humour in one or two places.

One early indicator of this is the army base being located at a place called Longhampton - "hampton" being slang for penis (supposedly rhyming slang, from Hampton Wick in London). So a long hampton is a, well you get the idea.


Charlotte Rampling on the telephone
Charlotte Rampling as the Duke's girlfriend Sara

There are some elements of satire in the script, but these fit a little awkwardly into the rest of the film. As an illustration of this, Rotten to the Core begins with a shot of then contemporary Prime Minister Harold Wilson, with his words spoken by a mimic in voice over, exhorting the British people to reignite their spirit of adventure and enterprise. Unfortunately, the Boultings have decided to follow this with a raspberry sound as a simple "up yours" joke. 

But the film sits on the fence a little about Wilson's words, as if the writers were not sure if the characters are embracing the PM's call to arms or rejecting it. On the one hand, the film suggests that it's far easier to steal money than to bother with all that striving and endeavouring palaver. On the other, it suggests that maybe criminal endeavour is one area where Britain could compete and that "enterprise" like that of the Duke is something to be celebrated. Then again, none of his activities are all that successful in the end, so maybe not. This uncertainty is carried through the whole film and there's often a feeling that not all of the writers were on quite the same page.

One theme of the film is that British criminals, and by implication Britain itself, need to become more imaginative and more ambitious in order to compete internationally. At one point, the Duke tells his men that the era of small time hoods like them is over, and that they all need to become more ambitious. Maybe the Boultings were also addressing their contemporaries in the British film industry. If so, then the message is ironic, because Rotten to the Core is much safer and less ambitious than the Boultings' previous films. 

There's also an interesting passive-aggressive thing going on about the role of the German general who is being impersonated by the Duke. In the scenes where he is inspecting British troops, there's an implicit "There's a bloody Kraut ordering our soldiers around" undercurrent to the humour. This is used by the Duke to rile Lieutenant Vine and get some laughs by taunting him when he decides to inspect his men while disguised as the German general.

In that sense, Rotten to the Core feels almost like an early Eurosceptic movie, combining the understanding that Britain would increasingly be working with its European allies, including former enemies, with a sense that many people don't like that idea very much.


British lobby card for Rotten to the Core
British lobby card for Rotten to the Core, with Ian Bannen in the tank turret

The film was apparently originally going to be called "Rotten to the Corps", a play on the army element of the plot, before this was dropped and changed to Rotten to the Core, leaving it with a fairly uninteresting title. "Rotten to the Corps" is admittedly not a particularly good title, but it is at least a pun.

Rotten to the Core was photographed in Panavision by, surprisingly enough, Freddie Young, best known as the Oscar winning cinematographer of David Lean's epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970). Young was probably chosen for his experience with Panavision, although it's not at all clear if a widescreen format was the best choice for this material. This is occasionally a problem with comedies of this era, particularly with directors unused to widescreen, as there's something about the format that seems to work against the intimacy required of a comedy. In this case, the director, John Boulting, doesn't always seem sure how best to utilise the Panavision frame, particularly in some of the interior dialogue scenes.

Apart from the uncertainty in the script, the biggest problem that Rotten to the Core suffers from is too many centres of interest and no central character for the audience to focus on. It's not even clear who the main character actually is. Is it the three criminals newly released from prison? Is it the Duke? Is it his girlfriend Sara? This may be a result of too many writers being involved in the script.

This emphasises another problem the film has, which is that Anton Rodgers is not entirely satisfactory casting as the Duke. Rodgers does his best, but he's really too young and too callow for this role and the film needs someone with more of a star presence to carry it. The identity of the ideal leading man for the film is quite obvious. What Rotten to the Core, and the part of the Duke, are crying out for is Peter Sellers. 

Sellers had already worked with the Boultings several times, having previously taken a supporting role in Carlton-Browne of the F. O. and a more prominent part as the obstroperous trade union shop steward in I'm All Right, Jack, a role that won him a BAFTA award. He then starred as the naive, trendy vicar in Heavens Above! in 1963. 


Ian Bannen and Charlotte Rampling
Percy Vine (Ian Bannen) with Sara (Charlotte Rampling)

The casting of Peter Sellers would have given Rotten to the Core a star presence and a focal point to knit its different elements together. It's easy to imagine him running through the Duke's repertoire of disguises and false personae, from an aristocratic crook and a doctor at a health clinic to a spy chief and a German general, with enthusiasm and aplomb. 

Sellers did eventually team up with the Boultings again, but it was for the inferior romantic comedy There's a Girl in My Soup (1970), opposite Goldie Hawn, and then for the dire French resistance farce Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1973). But if he was going to make another film with them, he would have done better to choose this one and skip the others.

Although the film lacks a central character to channel audience interest, the proliferation of characters does have its compensations. Because it means that we get Ian Bannen as a stuff-shirted army officer, Peter Vaughan as Rampling's plain-speaking father, Eric Sykes as a private detective and Thorley Walters as an impossibly vain police chief.

Sykes and Walters are particularly good value. Sykes's private detective character, William Hunt, was invalided out of the Metropolitan Police with (what else?) flat feet. After being given the assignment of keeping watch on Rampling's character, he stakes out her flat in an array of increasingly absurd disguises. 

Just as amusing is Thorley Walters, who plays Chief Constable Preston, the police chief who is forever adjusting his uniform or admiring himself in the nearest mirror. Ian Bannen is also memorable as Lieutenant "Creeper" Vine, a boring military type who's unrequited lust for Rampling will be his undoing. Thorley Walters, Ian Bannen, Kenneth Griffith and Raymond Huntley, who plays the prison governor, were all regulars in the Boulting brothers' comedies.

Things are less good for Charlotte Rampling, in her first credited film role. She has a decent sized part, although it's 1965 so she's required to gratuitously strip down to her underwear to add some interest. She is, alas, also dubbed, and the reasons for this are unclear.


Eric Sykes reading a crime magazine
Detective Hunt (Eric Sykes) gets some tips from a crime magazine

Victor Maddern also seems like odd casting as Anxious O'Toole. Despite his name, O'Toole doesn't actually seem to be all that anxious and Maddern, usually seen as a bolshie army private or Cockney cab driver, never gives the impression that anything much fazes him. 

Some of the film's jokes seem fairly old and the over-familiarity of this genre means that some of it feels distinctly second or even third hand. There are plenty of unlikely disguises, comedy accents and mild jabs at the army, NATO, James Bond and health spas (including a scene in the spa reminiscent of the same year's Thunderball), but some gags are as flat as Sykes's character's feet. There's even a scene where a computer self-destructs on being given one of the characters' IQ test results, a joke that feels ancient, but actually can't really have been that old in 1965. 

There's also a brief appearance by an Amphicar, a German amphibious car that often seemed to turn up in comedies around this time, the surprise factor derived from driving a car into a river obviously proving hard to resist.

Rotten to the Core did receive a BAFTA nomination for best black & white British art direction for its veteran designer Alex Vetchinksy. Although this was 1965 and competition in black and white was not very strong by this time, as most films with elaborate sets were now made in colour. 

Although it's clearly a lesser effort from the Boultings, given its cast and pedigree there are inevitably funny moments in Rotten to the Core and some good comic character performances. There's also some decent comic business with "The Arms". These are a pair of false arms that are resorted to whenever the crooks are truly desperate. They are permanently holding up a newspaper that supposedly makes the wearer look less suspicious, while he can wander around in public rifling through the pockets of passers-by. 

Ultimately, Rotten to the Core is a middling comedy that uncertainly mixes the Boultings' satirical style with a more traditional crime comedy. It does contain a few laughs and there are compensations in some of the supporting performances. But there's no question that it's a step down after the Boultings' satires of the 1950s and early '60s, and a clear sign that they were losing their previously sure touch.


Rotten to the Core

Year: 1965
Genre: Crime Comedy
Country: UK
Director: John Boulting

Cast Anton Rodgers (Randolph Berkeley-Greene, "The Duke"), Charlotte Rampling (Sara Capell), Eric Sykes (William Hunt), Ian Bannen (Lieutenant Percy Vine), Thorley Walters (Chief Constable Preston), Peter Vaughan (Sir Henry Capell), Dudley Sutton (Jelly Knight), Kenneth Griffith (Lenny the Dip), James Beckett (Scapa Flood), Victor Maddern (Anxious O'Toole), Avis Bunnage (Countess de Wett), Frank Jarvis (Moby), Arthur Skinner (Nick the Bible), Ian Wilson (Chopper Parsons), Kenneth Dight (Dirty Bertie), Andre Van Gyseghem (Field Marshal von Schneer), Peter Zander (German ADC), Robert Bruce (War Office Major), Neil Hallett (Guard commander), Danvers Walker (British ADC), Basil Dignam (The General), Barbara Everest (Mrs Dick), Margaret Lacey (Miss Rossiter), Cameron Hall (The Admiral)

Uncredited:
 Raymond Huntley (Prison Governor), John Baker (Strangler Fred), Richard Coleman (Inspector Hewlett), Dandy Nichols (Woman in cemetery), Aimée Delamain (Lady Greville), Edna Morris (Woman on tube), Tony Quinn (Cemetery keeper), Lockwood West (Bank manager), John Trenaman (Prison warder), John Comer (Police Sergeant), John Boulting (Tube traveller)

Screenplay Jeffrey Dell, Roy Boulting, John Warren, Len Heath, based on an idea by John Warren & Len Heath  Producer Roy Boulting Cinematography Freddie Young  Art director Alex Vetchinsky Editor Teddy Darvas  Music Michael Dress  Music played by The New Jazz Voices, conducted by Douglas Gamley  Special effects Wally Veevers  Associate producer Philip Shipway

Running time 89 mins  Black & white

Production company Charter Film Productions  Distributor British Lion (UK), Cinema V (US)

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