The Cracksman (1963, UK)

The Cracksman - Charlie Drake as Ernest Wright, master locksmith

One can imagine Ronnie Barker, not much more than an extra in this movie, sitting back and watching Charlie Drake play a too-eager-to-please prisoner in a delightful old British nick and thinking, “If I just made him gruffer, more of a rogue, less honest… it’d be funnier.” And then going away and making Porridge 10 or so years later, to so much more acclaim than this ever achieved. Which isn’t to say that The Cracksman has no merit. 

Drake plays Ernest Wright, a master locksmith, scrupulously honest (as demanded by the Locksmith’s Creed, which he takes very seriously), and trusting to a fault. When he sees an impeccably-dressed man trying to break into an expensive car, he offers to help. The Police, it turns out, would have preferred him to have first checked that the other man was the vehicle’s owner. The very same well-heeled gent turns up after Ernest’s ensuing court case and apologises for the horrible ‘misunderstanding’… and duly takes advantage of the little man’s gullibility (and his desire to show off his locksmithing prowess) a second time, tricking him into breaking into a stately home. After a short stretch in jail, Ernest - a wee bit sad and vulnerable after being given the cold shoulder by all his old friends - is again set up by an apparently distraught woman and conned into opening a safe. Again he gets caught, and this time he cops a 3-year whack.

In contrast to his increasingly miserable life outside, the prison seems rather jolly - aside from the ritual of both the prison officers and prisoners needing to lay down the law to the newcomer. It helps that his cellmates aren’t overly threatening - one is a brooding artist and the other, ‘Feathers’ (Finlay Currie), is an old lag in his 80s whose life revolves around the 60-odd budgerigars he keeps in the cell. More importantly, Ernest’s reputation as a master cracksman has preceded him; his fellow prisoners are a bit in awe of his professional abilities and expect him to be able to break out at will. And when he ingeniously avoids being caught red-handed with the head boy’s shiv, his rock solid status is cemented.

Ernest remains as law-abiding and positive as it is possible to be in prison, but still manages to escape when accidentally knocked into the sewer on a work detail. Later he unwittingly leads a mass escape when, responding to Feathers’ pleas for him to pick the lock and fetch some birdseed for his starving budgies, he opens his cell door and is then prevailed upon to open the doors of others who have been sweating on him to make his big break. When he reaches the garden shed to get Feathers’ seeds, he looks around and finds 20 or so others by his side.

Even before his sentence is up, he is lined up by a gang who believe they could use the services of a master cracksman; he is visited out of the blue by a very attractive woman, Muriel (Nyree Dawn Porter), who purports to be from the Prisoners Lonely Aid Group - and on his release she takes him straight to a gangland boss who showers him with money and drinks. And then induces him to run up a £350 debt that he has no hope of repaying, except perhaps by rendering those rare professional services. A rival gang then joins the fun in competition for those same services. Rather than fight over him, the two crime bosses agree to split the proceeds of the heist for which Ernest’s talents are required - the Stamford Collection of Fine Gems at the Prince Edward Museum. But when it comes to the crunch, Ernest’s inherent goodness prevails and, with the help of Muriel (who reveals herself to be an undercover policewoman), the robbery is thwarted, all the bad guys are rounded up, and Ernest and Muriel live happily if improbably ever after.

This is a gentle, rather twee comedy, featuring a comfy prison, a healthy dose of slapstick, and a good heart. But it’s not Porridge.

The Cracksman #2 - Ronnie Barker as Yossie and Percy Herbert as Nosher The Cracksman #3 - Nyree Dawn Porter as Muriel Johnson

Posted on November 27th, 2012 at 8:38 pm. Updated on November 27th, 2012 at 8:38 pm.

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