The 1961 heist drama Payroll concerns a vicious gang of crooks led by the ruthless, cold blooded Johnny Mellors (Michael Craig) who, with the help of inside man Pearson (William Lucas) raid an armoured van carrying the wages of the local factory. Naturally the wheels come off the job a little as both the driver of the armoured van and one of the gang are killed in the heist. As the gang bide their time waiting for the heat to die off, Jean Parker - Billie Whitelaw's vengeful widow of the slain guard - turns detective, applying the pressure on the guilt wracked Pearson as the rest of the gang start to come apart from within.
Like the previous year's Hell is a City (which also starred Whitelaw) Payroll marked the start of British cinema's desire to depict a far grittier, more honest realism than previously attempted and to address the fact that the UK was more than just London. Director Sidney Hayers who was a prolific yet unremarkable pair of hands for such drama breaks out of the falsehoods of the studio and the London-centric traditions to depict the industrialised, working class north - in this case the smoking factories, working docks and grimy, cobbled jiggers of Newcastle and Gateshead, all a decade before Get Carter punched a complacent cinema in its soft, flabby guts.
Unfortunately, just like Hell is a City, this commendable effort is scuppered by the fact that their realism only goes so far; for some scenes Rugby in Warwickshire stands in for the plot's working class Newcastle, and the industrialised North East is populated by far too many middle-class London, cockney or mild north country accents as if to say that although we accept that the time has come for a degree of realism, let's make sure everyone can at least understand what our cast are saying.
George Baxt's screenplay, based on a novel by Derek Bickerton, offers a grim noirish sensibility that destroys the naive notion of honour among thieves. Each character is depicted as calculating, selfish and without mercy, as they set about a series of double crosses that ensure crime does not pay. The film's strength perhaps lies in the fact that, despite the testosterone normally associated with heist dramas, Payroll offers two genuinely strong and rather meaty roles for women at a time when this was rather lacking across the board. As the widow Parker, Whitelaw has the biggest character journey, going from ordinary housewife and mother to dogged avenger, whilst French actress Françoise Prévost almost steals the film as Pearson's embittered wife; a woman saved by him during WWII and promised a better life, only to find herself unfulfilled in suburbia. She captures the very essence of that kind of woman who has previously had to get by on her wits and now knows no other way of life. She is determined to get what she wants, what she feels she is due, and is happy to do so completely without compunction.
Of the male cast, Michael Craig is surprisingly effective as an out and out villain. Granted one might expect Stanley Baker to occupy such a role, and he'd be perfect of course, but Craig feels just right here and his increasing immorality is all the more surprising given it comes from such a seemingly urbane, civilsed looking man rather than an obvious tough, even if you do feel that Tom Bell's increasingly dissatisfied 'lieutenant' could easily take him. That reminds me - it's always good to see Tom Bell, he was a favourite of my dad's back in the day (his current favourite is another Tom; Tom Hardy) and he's become one of mine since too. He brings the right sense of genuine grit required for the proceedings, especially as he's one of the few on display who has a legitimate northern accent, but you do find yourself yearning for his character to let rip a little more with the insubordination.
Another familiar face who pops up that you're always happy to see is Kenneth Griffith, who appears here as the gang's liability, turning to drink and running off at the mouth. There's an amusing scene where he's followed from the pub by two young thugs who proceed to roll him in an alleyway - his prone body coming to rest on a sodden newspaper ad proclaiming 'I look my best on a Murphy' - whatever that was! In fact there's a few surprising examples of dark comedy on offer here, such as the factory employee who fearlessly jumps on the back of the getaway car only to wear a look that says 'what the hell am I doing?' before being unceremoniously pushed off by Craig's villain.
Overall, Payroll (which earned a new lease of life thanks to Julien Temple incorporating several clips into his 2009 Dr Feelgood biopic, Oil City Confidential) is a solid if a little unspectacular and overlong example of early 60s British noir. I enjoyed it, but I do think someone should have got Reg Owen to tone down his brassy, jaunty jazz score which borders on the intrusive at times and with a few notes that put me in mind of the opening bars to '80s gameshow Every Second Counts!