The Great Tube Caper

The name Wolf Rilla might sound like a pseudonym for some superstar wrestling champion but movie buffs know him for Village of the Damned (1960), a superb adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. Although he primarily specialized in B-movie genre films, his work was usually much better than the competition and he made some memorable comedies like Bachelor of Hearts (1958) as well as first-rate crime dramas like Witness in the Dark (1959). One of his lesser-known movies that was mostly overlooked or underrated at the time is Piccadilly Third Stop (1960) and it looks even better now, offering a time capsule look at London in the early sixties plus an exceptional ensemble of actors playing would-be crooks plotting a major heist.  

The thieves in question are Dominic (Terence Morgan), a slick, smooth-talking hustler and his not-so-competent partner Toddy (Charles Kay) and Joe (John Crawford), a volatile bully with some good connections in the London Underworld. Also in their circle is Christine (Mai Zetterling), who is married to Joe but is having a secret affair with Dominic, and Edward (Dennis Price), who runs an illegal gambling operation but agrees to bankroll a proposed heist of $100,000 pounds.

German lobbycard for the 1960 British heist film PICCADILLY THIRD STOP

Their target is the documents room of the Japanese embassy, which is where the loot is locked up in a safe. How do they know this? Dominic accidentally learns this information from Fina (Yoko Tani), the daughter of the Japanese ambassador, who innocently reveals this fact while Dominic is romancing her at a café. Fina, whose social life is highly restricted due to an overbearing father, falls hard for Dominic and ends up providing him with crucial details so he can plan the perfect crime.

One aspect that makes the theft appealing to the plotters is the fact that the safe room is in the basement and next to a private entrance to the Belgravia subway station. Breaking and entering the residence from the bowels of the tube tunnel is less likely to be noticed by anyone and the robbers can make a quick getaway but first they need an expert safecracker. Joe knows one of the best, who goes by the nickname ‘The Colonel’ (William Hartnell), but his exacting methods and payment demands creates resentment among the group.

William Hartnell plays a colorfully eccentric safecracker in the 1960 heist thriller PICCADILLY THIRD STOP, directed by Wolf Rilla.

Most heist movies end badly but part of the enjoyment is the fun in seeing a team of quick-witted specialists plan and carry out a scheme that usually targets a bank or racetrack or some business that can afford the loss because they are heavily insured. And we often end up rooting for the criminals because they are humanized and made sympathetic despite their faults as in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Rififi (1955) or The Killing (1956). That is not the case in Piccadilly Third Stop. This motley crew of money hungry lowlifes are the worst kind of bottom feeders and aren’t particularly gifted at anything. Joe is a no-luck gambler with a terrible temper and is forced into the robbery for financial reasons. Dominic is an arrogant cad who fancies himself as a ladies’ man but uses Fina to get access to the safe while planning to run off with Christine and all the money after they pull it off. Toddy is little better than a street pickpocket and Christine is appropriately devious like any good femme fatale should be. All in all, a contemptible lot but seeing them argue, fall apart and ultimately botch their final goal is enormously entertaining in its own way.

Joe (John Crawford, left), Terence Morgan and Mai Zetterling make an uptight trio in PICCADILLY THIRD STOP (1960), filmed in London.

The one somewhat sympathetic character is not Fina, who is either too naïve or dense to be credible, but ‘The General,” who is the only professional criminal in the group and has an almost aristocratic bearing. When Dominic and Joe race against time, trying to break down a concrete-enforced brick wall with pickaxes to enter the safe room, ‘The Colonel’ refuses to help them. He is not going to damage his master safecracker hands with heavy physical labor because his partners are so ill-prepared. And he’s right of course. (Hartnell of Doctor Who fame is delightful in this role and brings some droll humor to the proceedings).

Joe (John Crawford, left), Terence Morgan, William Hartnell and Charles Kay (far right) check out the layout of a potential heist in PICCADILLY THIRD STOP (1960), directed by Wolf Rilla.

Piccadilly Third Stop might be better known today if it had a different title because the current one doesn’t provide any clue as to its storyline. In fact, we never spend any significant time in Piccadilly in the film. Most of the action occurs in the dank underground corridors of the Belgravia station. None of this matters, however, because Rilla’s crime drama is tautly paced at 78 minutes and looks terrific, thanks to Ernest Steward’s noir-like use of shadows and lighting, especially in the tube scenes. Film composer Philip Green (he scored Basil Dearden’s terrific Othello reimagining, All Night Long in 1962) gives the film a perky jazz vibe mixed with suspense undertones and Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets) practically steals the movie with his sophisticated villainy in the supporting role of the heist sponsor.

Terence Morgan, who comes off like a poor man’s Richard Burton, is completely believable as a decadent lounge lizard and schemer and was no stranger to the crime drama genre. Some of his more memorable roles include Both Sides of the Law (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), Val Guest’s They Can’t Hang Me (1954) as an inspector and The Shakedown (1960), in which he operates a blackmail ring. My favorite role of his is The Penthouse (1967), a Harold Pinter-like home invasion thriller where the cowardly Morgan proves to be inept at defending his lover (Suzy Kendall) from being terrorized by two strangers.

Terence Morgan plays a slimy lowlife who preys on women in THE SHAKEDOWN (1960).

If John Crawford as Joe looks familiar, it’s because he has appeared in over 200 films and TV series. Born in Colfax, Washington, the American actor has appeared in small parts in big budget flicks like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) but also made numerous crime dramas in the U.K. such as Floods of Fear (1958), Hell is a City (1960) and The Impersonator (1961). He is outstanding in a bull-in-a-china-shop way in Piccadilly Third Stop and so obnoxious that you can’t wait to see him get his comeuppance, which is so richly deserved.

American actor John Crawford stars in the 1961 British thriller THE IMPERSONATOR.

Swedish born actress Mai Zetterling was no stranger to British crime dramas either and appeared in several good ones like Marc Allegret’s Blackmailed (1951) and Compton Bennett’s Desperate Moment (1953), both co-starring Dirk Bogarde. She also proved she was the perfect comic foil to comedians like Danny Kaye in Knock on Wood (1954) and Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play (1962). Zetterling eventually eased into the director chair in 1963 and turned out some critically acclaimed and controversial sex-themed dramas including Loving Couples (1964) and Night Games (1966), which were made in her native Sweden and comparable in style to Ingmar Bergman’s art house hits. She was gorgeous and sexy, of course, as the treacherous Christine in Piccadilly Third Stop but proved she was much more talented and ambitious if you look at the whole of her career.

As for Yoko Tani, the innocent dupe of Rilla’s film, she was of Japanese descent but was raised in Paris with some schooling in Japan. She was often cast in exotic Asian roles for her delicate beauty and charm but was rarely given a chance to prove herself dramatically with the exception of a few films like James Clavell’s Savage Justice (1967) aka The Sweet and the Bitter, in which she seeks justice for her father’s death in an internment camp. Several of her movies, however, have cult appeal or an irresistible curiosity factor such as Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960), as the Inuit wife of Arctic hunter Anthony Quinn, the East German sci-fi drama First Spaceship on Venus (1960), and the peplum favorite Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (1961) opposite Gordon Scott.

Following Piccadilly Third Stop, Wolf Rilla made Cairo (1963), another nifty heist thriller involving the theft of priceless artifacts from an Egyptian museum that starred George Sanders and Richard Johnson. He also made The World Ten Times Over (1963), a somber, well-acted melodrama that combined ‘Kitchen Sink’ realism with French New Wave stylistics. Today the film, which stars Sylvia Syms and June Ritchie, looks more like a proto-feminist critique of male-female relationships but, at the time, most critics panned it and it halted Rilla’s career for a while. Unfortunately, his final two films were crude sexploitation comedies, Naughty Wives (1973) and Bedtime with Rosie (1975), which gave you no indication that Rilla had once directed several B-movie gems.

Piccadilly Third Stop is not currently available on any format in the U.S. but it was released on DVD by Renown Pictures in July 2015 in the U.K. If you own an all-region DVD player, you can probably purchase an import copy from online sellers.

Other links of interest:

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/525590/index.html

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/oct/25/guardianobituaries.film

https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12479361.terence-morgan-british-actor-who-was-a-star-of-he-1950s-and-1960s/

http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/6/21/yoko-tani/

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