Only When I Larf - 1968

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The plot

This is a rather pedestrian but nevertheless charming adaptation of the novel of the same name. With a stellar cast, it tells the story of three con artists - Silas, Liz and Bob - who, after a close-run thing with a job in New York, are seeking to go up in the world by de-frauding the general of an african nation facing civil war. When that goes awry, and they turn to defrauding a Middle Eastern bank, the whole job tests the three’s relationship to its utmost, as the younger Bob becomes increasingly attracted to Liz.

Inevitably, they start to get under each other's feet and begin feuding and distrusting one another. As a result, the ending in the deserts of Syria contains a good twist which the viewer doesn't see coming.

Film notes

The direction by Dearden is upbeat and enthusiastic, bright and brisk, and though a US-financed movie it does have a distinctly British feel to it, not least through some of the hamming up Attenborough is required to do for his part as Silas. The locations are shot well - in particular, the opening sequence in New York where the finance fraud requires the gang to keep to a tight schedule, and to escape Manhattan by helicopter - and the catchy whistled theme tune does add to this jaunty atmosphere on the film which is part comedy drama, part heist movie.

The acting is accomplished right down to the supporting cast and does draw upon the repertory company of top quality British TV and film actors of the time. A number of actors were up for the part of Silas, including David Niven, but Richard Attenborough was determined to get it. Alexandra Stewart, relatively unknown in the UK and Hollywood, was nevertheless a very well known actress in France.

The film does have a great sixties free-wheeling feel to it - David Hemmings sees to that - and Deighton has secured a significant budget for the movie, allowing for a significant amount of location filming. Dearden also catches onto the decade's cinematic fashions, with jerky jump shots, zoom-ins and hand-held shots something like out of A Hard Day's Night.

Ultimately, it lacks a compelling script, and loses something from the novel, where Deighton's constant switching in the narration between the three main protagonists helped shape the story and keep the tension. Too much of the acting is poor and Richard Attenborough - surprisingly - isn't that great as Silas. His 'disguise' as the Arab financier Hamid is laughably poor, the viewer is led to think that the mark deserves to be defrauded if he can't see through it.

Prior to the publication of the book in 1968, Deighton was already seeking a movie deal for the story. He had 150 copies of the book privately printed and bound in a plastic comb binder to establish copyright; these have now become the most sought-after item for collectors of books and ephemera associated with Deighton. However, the novel itself wasn't published in the States until 1987.

Title sequence, Only When I Larf

Film notes

Director: Basil Dearden
Producer: Len Deighton
Screenplay: John Salmon
Starring: Richard Attenborough (Silas); David Hemmings (Bob); Alexandra Stewart (Liz); Nicholas Pennell (Spencer); Terence Alexander (Gee Gee Gray); Melissa Stribling (Diana).
Music: Ron Grainer
Released/broadcast: May 1968 (UK).