Based on his fictionalized account of the first robbery from a moving train, Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery feels as if it should be better than it is. It has a lot going for it: a wonderful cast led by Sean Connery as the mastermind thief Edward Pierce, a sumptuous period recreation, a deft score by Jerry Goldsmith and the last, lovely work from the great cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth. The script, by Crichton himself, gives the characters nice turns of phrase and winning quirks, but it also begins to suggest some of the film’s problems.
First, there is the sympathy we’re meant to have with a thoroughly disreputable character. Pierce is not just a thief, he’s a murderer and God knows what else, but graced with aphoristic wit and Connery’s charisma, we’re primed to sympathize with him as he attempts the theft of the century. Whatever misgivings we might have about his behavior are airily dismissed as sheer sanctimony. Our desire for the plan to succeed makes us root for Pierce every step of the way, without considering the ugliness of his actions and attitudes.
Nonetheless, Pierce’s mysterious background produces several holes in the plot that aren’t easily ignored. Where does he get the money to fund his schemes, for example? He already lives in deluxe style, so why engineer this conspiracy other than for the thrill of doing it? Why doesn’t he apply his obvious skills to legal business? (When asked by his girlfriend Miriam [Lesley-Anne Down] whether the businessmen with whom he associates accept him, his answer, “Among sharp businessmen, one doesn’t ask too many questions,” is more arch than informative.) And the film clearly goes off the tracks when Crichton shifts tone from comedy of manners to straight melodrama in order to emphasize the murder of a secondary character, only to return to supercilious irony as if nothing had happened.
That lapse suggests the biggest problem with Robbery: Crichton’s direction. This was not his first film, but for all the expensive trappings, his execution is uneven and amateurish. Unsworth keeps things looking good, but there is more to camerawork than beautiful lighting. There should be a composition and organization to the shots which can only be provided by someone whose vision moves beyond beautiful people floating through lush settings. While never outright bad, the film making feels tentative, as if the camera were drifting in search of what it should emphasize. Only the action scenes are tightly conceived—and they were probably handled by a second unit director.
Given the importance ascribed to them, it is remarkable how little sense people have of what directors actually do. A film like The Great Train Robbery throws that ignorance into relief. It comes tantalizingly close to being the rousing entertainment it’s meant to be, and there are some delectable moments, but it never quite shakes off the impression that the man behind the camera is a little out of his depth.