ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Bellman & True (1987) starring Bernard Hill Blu Ray (Indicator)
Robbery by technology
This British heist thriller features Bernard Hill as Hiller, an alcoholic technology wizard who uses his skills to make a living on the wrong side of the law. At the start of the film, he arrives in London with his young son-in-law (played by Kieran O'Brien), only to find that two gang members whom he previously worked with have caught up with him. After they torture him a little with a utility knife, they abduct the pair of them and bring him in front of their boss, Salto (Richard Hope), who is unhappy that he scarpered before completing his last job properly.
Salto coerces Hiller into deciphering a computer tape which apparently contains important information about a bank that they are intending to rob. After a while, he manages to crack it. However, Salto refuses to let him and the boy go as the former insists that he lends his considerable talents to the actual heist itself.
Watch a trailer:
An underrated British-made gem
This crime thriller, produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison’s HandMade Films, received a modest theatrical release before bowing on British television in an expanded three-part 150-minute miniseries format. While it garnered some acclaim back in the day, it has largely remained forgotten about in the years since then.
In terms of structure, it’s pretty much an old-fashioned heist movie of the type that were particularly popular from the 1950s through to the 1970s - albeit with a bit more in the way of 1980s-style strong language, nudity and gruesome violence (you should see what happens to one guy’s legs) thrown in for good measure. It also utilises that well-worn “reluctant criminal pressured into carrying out one last job” trope. In addition, there’s the usual rogue’s gallery of Cockney gangsters talking in tones of thinly-veiled menace.
However, before we all dismiss Bellman & True as a pure exercise in “let’s count the cliches”, it’s worth pointing out that it does have a surprising amount to offer in its finer details. It’s very much a movie of two halves, both of them being equally worthwhile in their own way. While the first half is largely focussed on the robbery being meticulously pulled together, it also takes time to build up the character the main protagonist and his touching relationship with his stepson.
There’s a certain resigned vulnerability to Bernard Hill’s Hiller; he’s a man who is used to dealing with (often literal) hard knocks in the only way he can: via downing copious bottles of Bell’s Whiskey. At the same time, he’s a committed father who clearly wants to do much better for the child in his care. However, all he can offer him are the various toy robots which he concocts along with some seemingly absurd fantasy stories. The really heartwarming part is that the latter is very happy with the little that his dad can give.
When we get to the actual robbery, the film shifts gears to become a riveting, high-tension action-thriller. There are moments of agonising suspense. There are a couple of shocking deaths. There’s a rip-roarer of a car chase. There are even a few welcome injections of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too grim - the getaway driver repeatedly trying to force the gang’s Jaguar through a gap that’s clearly too narrow being a memorable example.
Bellman & True is an underrated gem of a film. It’s truly exciting stuff but never loses sight of its human dimension.
Runtime: 114/122 mins
Dir: Richard Loncraine
Script: Richard Loncraine, Desmond Lowden, Michael Wearing, from a novel by Desmond Lowden
Starring: Bernard Hill, Derek Newark, Richard Hope, Ken Bones, Frances Tomelty, Kieran O'Brien
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
There are two versions of the film here: one of which was released in cinemas (which has a length of 114 mins) and a slightly longer one which was only shown to preview audiences (with a length of 122 minutes). The latter version has some extras scenes spliced in which are, very noticeably, of Standard Definition quality. That aside, the images are mostly sharp with rich textures, albeit with a colour palette that veers a little too heavily towards the yellow.
The mono audio has been superbly restored and really blares from the speakers, adding a lot to the film’s intense mood.
As I’ve mentioned above, the film comes in two different versions on this disc. It’s a pity that the longest version (the extended TV cut) is not available here but nonetheless, some choice is still better than none. There are also the following on the disc:
Richard Loncraine: Running in Traffic
An enjoyable interview with the film’s writer and director. He reveals that the only set built for the film was the interior of the bank. All of the rest was shot on location. He also touches on the rather lax “health and safety” aspects of making a British film in the 1980s. Some of the action sequences (such as the foot chase through the streets of central London) were filmed without permission and feature actual real-life traffic driving past. There’s one scene near the end where actor Bernard Hill is genuinely physically thrown towards the camera by an explosion.
Most interestingly, the film’s fictional events were rumoured to have inspired the real-life 2015 robbery of the Hatton Garden safe deposit facility in London. As Loncraine points out, there were indeed a number of curious similarities between art and life.
Kieran O'Brien: Just an Adventure
The actor who played the main character’s young son in the film is interviewed here. He clearly enjoyed his time on set; he got on with Bernard Hill like best mates, he got to throw a bottle at a television and he lived on a diet of Wimpy (an old British equivalent of McDonald’s) for the 4-month shoot. However, the film got a 15 rating on release, meaning that he couldn’t see it during its original cinema run - resulting in him being the subject of an article in the Manchester Evening News.
Desmond Lowden: Cracking the System
An interview with the author of the source novel who also co-adapted his own script. He talks briefly about his early career as a film editor (he worked with Cy Endfield on the film Hell Drivers) and the circumstances which got him into screenwriting. He also discusses the inspirations behind Bellman & True.
Colin Towns: Trust Me
Composer Towns discusses the various music pieces which he created for the film as well as voicing his own appreciation of director Richard Loncraine’s work.
The extras are rounded out by a trailer, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.
Bellman & True is one of those films which will make you wonder why it has fallen into relative obscurity over the years. The extras are fairly decent with some enjoyable interviews.