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Money tree surgery
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE BIG JOB from Optimum's The Sid James Collection, by Slarek
 

A quick glance through the main credits of The Big Job and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled on a spin-off from the Carry-On film series. Produced by Peter Rogers, written by Talbot Rothwell and directed by Gerald Thomas, it features a typically bouncy Eric Rogers score and a cast that includes series regulars Sid James, Joan Sims and Jim Dale, not to mention a small string of other then popular comedy performers, including Dick Emery, Lance Percival and Deryck Guyler. Its previous UK video release was even titled What a Carry On: The Big Job. With so much comedy talent on board, how could you go wrong? Well...

The basic setup has been employed and modified by a number of films over the years and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Would-be criminal mastermind George Brain (Sid James) and his colleagues Booky (Dick Emery) and Dipper (Lance Percival) pull off a carefully planned bank robbery, the Big Job of the title. A series of bungles sees all three arrested and banged up for fifteen years, though not before George has hidden the loot in the hollow of a distinctive looking tree. When released, the three head straight back to retrieve their money, only to find that a new town has been built on this once isolated country spot. The tree, miraculously, has been left untouched, but is now located in the back garden of the town's new police station.

Stupidity is a tricky business in comedy and having dopey characters is a very different thing to making a similarly afflicted film. Paradoxically, the most successful comedy idiocy is always the result of some very smart thinking – by all means have stupid people in unrealistic situations, but for heaven's sake do more than hand them a priceless vase and spend ten minutes just waiting for them to drop it. And while one, two or even a small band of idiots can be funny, if everyone in the story is as dumb as a post then they're likely to wear out their welcome long before the halfway mark.

Which brings me back to The Big Job, a briskly paced film with a likeable and enthusiastic cast but whose world is one in which common sense and intelligent thought are alien concepts. Quite how the ironically self-named Great Brain even planned the opening robbery is a mystery, at least if his later thinking is anything to go by, but having done so he and his gang of buffoons prove hopelessly unqualified to execute it. Dropped at the bank by his wide-eyed and ditzy girlfriend Myrtle, George immediately shuts his coat tails in the door of the car and in the rush to help him Dipper falls down a ladder and Booky sets his foot on fire. Finally it's Myrtle who frees him by cutting the coat with scissors. It occurs to no-one, including the Great Brain himself, to simply open the door. Their getaway plan is equally ill-considered and sees them flee the crime scene in a hearse disguised as morticians, but driving slowly so as not to arouse police suspicion. Fine, except they get changed in front of the main witness and park the hearse almost directly opposite the bank, so are clearly seen leaving in it. Thus the cops instantly know who they're looking for and have no trouble at all catching them up.

But it's once the gang attempt to retrieve the money that the idiot factor really kicks in. The police station is run by the world's most useless police sergeant (played by Deryck Guyler), who says things like "We've far more important things to worry about than suspicious incidents" and is preoccupied with the police choral society's production of The Pirates of Penzance. The Great Brain, meanwhile, having set himself and the gang up in lodgings opposite the police station yard, embarks on a series of increasingly silly schemes to retrieve the stolen cash from the tree. Firing a rope over the wall with a whaling harpoon or spending five days to dig a tunnel underneath it might have comedy value if it were not perfectly obvious to even the slower audience member that they should just go and get another ladder (their first attempt failed when the ladder they nabbed from an eloping couple was recaptured) or better still two – if Dipper can steal tunnelling tools, a seaside telescope and a harpoon gun, this shouldn't prove TOO much trouble. And since the two workmen who take five days to do two hours' worth of tree surgery are given full access to the yard and the tree in question, and Dipper already has their tools, I can't be the only one wondering if The Great Brain has ever heard the terms Bluff or Disguise.

OK, The Big Job never pretends to be sophisticated comedy, but it has the potential to be a lot smarter than it settles for and tends to play dumb at the very moments you want it to be clever. It certainly has curiosity value as a social document, with George pressured into a hasty marriage in order to share a rented room with Myrtle, and while both she and landlady Mildred (Joan Sims) appear to be desperate for sex, the very idea is uninteresting to George and terrifying to Booky. This is the sort of thing, of course, that has helped create the image of Britain as a sexually repressed nation to outsiders looking for easy and derogatory classifications – it reflects not the attitudes of the general populace of the time, but those of the studio heads, politicians and censorship boards.

If you can accept the dopey second-half plotting and behaviour then The Big Job is a harmless enough entertainment, and its initially locked-in-time attitude to women does prove to be a partial smoke-screen for a female empowerment ending, though one that could also be read as a reflection of a then male fear of aggressive and domineering wives. It's the cast, inevitably, that provide most of the fun, from Sid James' irritable befuddlement and filthy laugh to Jim Dale's ludicrously boyish enthusiasm, a performance that almost plays like an audition for panto. But surprisingly it's not Sid who steals the show here, but Dick Emery – chiefly remembered for the camp characters in his later TV sketch show (mention his name to many who remember the series and they'll immediately come back with it's most renowned catch phrase "Oh you are awful!") – whose blend of weary cynicism, fact-spilling monologues and marital terror here are very nicely judged and give a tantalising taste of the film that might have been.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 – which looks about right – and anamorphically enhanced, this is another very clean print with good contrast and sharpness, although what looks like a little edge enhancement has produced the odd bit of digital shimmer on diagonal lines. Some compression artefacts are also visible in areas of low detail, but on the whole this is a decent transfer.

The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 mono and a clean one with no obvious problems.

extra features

None.

summary

The sort of daftness that you'll find in many a Carry-On film but without the smart thinking that distinguishes the series at its best, The Big Job is a curio with a likeable cast but is not as funny or witty as it could or should be. It looks good on DVD, though, and it's interesting to watch Dick Emery quietly steal the comedy acting honours from under Sid's nose.

The Big Job
Sid James Collection

UK 1965
85 mins
director
Gerald Thomas
starring
Sid James
Sylvia Sims
Dick Emery
Joan Sims
Lance Percival
Jim Dale
Deryck Guyler

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
none
distributor
Optimum
release date
14 May 2007
review posted
21 May 2007

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