Commentary Magazine


The Great Train Robbery, by John Gosling and Dennis Craig

The Art of the Caper

The Great Train Robbery.
by John Gosling and Dennis Craig.
Bobbs-Merrill. 178 pp. $4.50.

The caper is everywhere: in the movies (a well-heeled, sporting gang on the Riviera lifts a masterpiece), in the New York Daily News (a lonely woman is defrauded of her life's savings by a man posing as a CIA agent), in the New York Times (a huge Wall Street brokerage goes under at the hands of an obscure mastermind in New Jersey). It is a secret art form that dazzles by its beauty as a game, by all the equipment that goes with it—the trench coats, plans, clocks, safes, tools, disguises, masks. There are the days of anxious waiting and reconnoitering around the bank or the jewelry store, those cloudy days, when everything is safe because nothing has happened yet; the great penthouse apartment where the mastermind lives with his mistress, his good books, his brandy, his distaste for violence; there are the small portents of danger (the girl, one of the lieutenants, simple greed); and the place itself—large, shadowy, warm, welcoming, and dangerous; then there is the getaway, the painful departure from the place, from each other; there is that certain failure—we knew they were doomed, but maybe just this once they would get away.

The caper is Aesop, dressed in a Burberry, tooling around in a Jag, imposing order, teaching a lesson. Greed or extravagance in splitting up the loot are frequently precursors of the Fall; excessive ambition (the biggest haul, the most magnificent gems, so brilliant and famous that everybody knows them) is sure to lead to destruction; the smallest detail (a cat's tail tripping the alarm, a whiff of perfume) can upset all the skill, planning, timing, preparation, rehearsal, and work that have gone into the caper. Thus in Rififi, every precise step having been carried out with the reverence of a prayer, the caper is finally thrown into violence, confusion, defeat for the love of a kidnapped child and by the lust of a predatory mob (the haul was so large and tempting that it was bound to invite disaster).

Here is Specs O'Keefe talking about the Brinks job. “The first thing we had to do, just inside the now closed door was to take off our chauffeur caps and put on the masks. They were like skin rubber, fitted tight over our heads. . . . I thought they were the masks of movie actors—John Barrymore or somebody. . . . When all the masks were on we put our caps back on and started up the stairway to the second floor. Key No. 2 led us through the door at the top. Key No. 3 led us into the office area. It was dark . . .,” etc. through the many rooms to the vault and finally, “Key No. 4 let us into where we wanted to be. Where we had to be. It took us about twenty minutes. . . . There was no elation in the truck. We had been through this routine so many times that, suddenly, there was no kick—just a little satisfaction, I guess, that the getaway had been so clean.” Omnia animales post caper tristes sunt. The caper was over, the plans discharged “so clean,” but the haul was like ashes, about a million and a half dollars in burden and trouble.

The Great Train Robbery by John Gosling and Dennis Craig never takes us inside the caper the way The Men Who Robbed Brinks by O'Keefe and Bob Considine does, nor is it as detailed, clear, or complete. In fact, The Great Train Robbery is much too hastily put together to do justice to one of the greatest capers of all time, if it is to be judged by haul alone—more than seven million dollars, taken from a British mail train on August 8, 1963.

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The British job was neither as intricate as the Brinks caper nor as difficult (the special security cars were in the repair shop). Even so, the book, which apparently was written in less time than it took to plan the job, ought to have shown the same respect and concern for style and detail that the caper itself has. Gosling and Craig fail to make us live through the caper with the characters. We never get to know any of them well enough to tell them apart, and we have to listen to one of the authors, Gosling, formerly a Detective Superintendent at the Yard, hold forth with stories about himself in the third person, about his far-flung contacts in the underworld where he's known as “the Yokel” (“a nickname,” Gosling says, “which reflected his massive and ruddy complexion and not any slowness of wit”).

Twelve members of the British train caper were caught and convicted, about two million was found, but the rest—some five million—disappeared without a trace. Here Gosling has some sharp speculations about the planning of the caper and the disposal of the loot, which make up to some extent for his failure to convey the sense of place so necessary to the appreciation of a caper.

His idea is that most of the loot left England as planned, in diplomatic pouches, if you please, headed for one of those small, new countries to finance the modern equivalent of a Five Year Plan, with dividends to come in regularly for the mastermind echelon. If this is true, then these caper artists succeeded in making one of those rare breakthroughs which overturn the usual pattern of punishment and reward. Getting rid of the haul became a caper in itself, in effect taking the form of a bridge from outside the law (the hold-up) to action within the law (foreign investment). Gosling also believes that a London airport job about nine months earlier financed the big caper and assured each man enough money to tide him over during the planning stage and keep him out of trouble until the train robbery took place. To make the matter fitting and complete, the airport job was pulled by men who wore London's archetypical business uniform, the bowlers and tightly furled umbrellas of the City. What began as business bouffe ended as business triumphant. Plotted on a graph (which one of the masterminds may well have done), the progression of the train job resembles the course of the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution—from small job ascending to large caper and then sloping off to gradual rewards from the established order, nice dividends for normal living. The masterpiece shows the way for lesser works: follow nature, render unto Caesar, have your fun, and then leave everything as you found it. The twelve who didn't follow the rules got theirs, thirty years in the clink, which set up an international clamor at the injustice of it all.

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A masterpiece illuminates, of course, but a caper manqué does too. One afternoon on West 46th Street in New York City, a gang dressed in police uniforms robs a jewelry store. So far so good: nobody's hurt, they've got the stuff. Quickly they pile into a panel truck, but the driver can't get it started—clutch trouble or the shift won't engage in first. They need a push desperately, so they turn to a gang of construction workers who are not especially exultant volunteers when it comes to pushing a truck full of cops. At this point, the whole thing gets very fishy—the “cops” start running off in every direction. Now the construction men come over to the truck. They find the loot and, embarking on a doomed sub-caper of their own, they proceed to hide it at the construction site. Several floors above the action, a girl who had been watching the whole scene from her office window gives it all away to the real cops, who recover the loot and arrest the gang and the subcaperers, thus teaching the former to “plan ahead” and the latter not to try to benefit from other people's misfortune.

All this really happened, though it does sound somewhat like Big Deal on Madonna Street, a chronicle of mishaps and ineptitudes taking off from the clean form of Rififi. When the caper goes awry, the environment hits back fast, and suddenly all the hazards, kept at bay by some degree of planning, spring to life as if an alarm had been rung. In fact, the environment is really the star of the caper, even more than the mastermind. A movie like The Maltese Falcon, which might be taken for a caper, is not one at all, since there is no plan, only an intricate plot. In the caper, the job and the plan come first (cf. The League of Gentlemen, The Asphalt Jungle, the Brinks job, and The Lavender Hill Mob).

Work, foresight, prudence, skill, persistence—the middle-class virtues—are the qualities that make a caper which, like the novel, is a middle-class form. It was magnificently right for the money in the British train job to go back into investment, this time overseas, following the classic route of capitalism. The caper holds the mirror up to the middle class and the images rebound so quickly and truly that art and life become one. The caper, finally, is a test of middle-class virtue thrown into action under pressure where it usually fails in the end, as character and other forces upset its neat and rational order.

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