Dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1954; BFI Blu-ray reissue, 2020
Watching Laurence Harvey glide through his scenes in The Good Die Young as the urbane yet callous Miles ‘Rave’ Ravencourt — unquestionably the best-named cad in screen history — it’s easy to become minded of parallels with his life and other films. Immediately salient is how Harvey’s performance informs his later, defining role as Joe Lampton in Room at the Top, albeit with Lampton manifesting more as a grimly-determined sociopath than the beamingly psychopathic Rave. Both of these characters, and indeed Harvey’s general presence (both on-screen and off) throughout his career, draw upon what reads to some extent like an early life of struggle for Zvi Mosheh Skikne, before his Jewish parents moved the family from Lithuania to South Africa.
Upon leaving the South African Army’s entertainment corps, Harvey moved to Manchester, gravitated towards theatrical circles and acquired a reputation, bluntly, as a bit of a chancer: a man with a predilection for living beyond his means and continually in debt to his peers. An enduring quest for the fast track may explain why Harvey’s career, in an artistic sense, often resembles a record of missed opportunities. The brightly-lit option always won out, as illustrated by Harvey’s rush to Hollywood after the success of Room at the Top, leaving behind the burgeoning New Wave cinema movement that he had only just helped to introduce and in which he could have flourished for years to come. Here in The Good Die Young we see him as Rave, attempting for the thousandth time to gracefully extract cash from his long-suffering wife, played by Margaret Leighton. After filming, the two of them married. Harvey was the second of three husbands about whom Leighton, late in her life, made a number of conspicuously oblique remarks.
For the lion’s share of its original audience, The Good Die Young will no doubt have served up a feature-length slab of edgily modish, heist-fuelled thrills ’n’ spills. Our expectations now, of a period London noir, will have less concern for plot lines and more for elegant cars, empty streets, crowded bars and claustrophobic lodgings. It’s the aesthetics and performance that must deliver, which is perhaps just as well, for when a portentous narrator begins his introduction of the four male leads, reporting each character’s grab-bag of misfortune, predicament and neediness, it foreshadows conclusions of doom as inexorable as night following day. Even the fresh-eyed 1950s movie-goer will have had surety on the basics, watching a Jag career through misty night-time Chelsea: one, a daring crime will be committed; two, nobody is going to get away with it. It is 1954. The criminals can never win, however much we want at least some of them to, lest England collapse into anarchy upon the film’s release. (A wisecrack, perhaps, yet the heist films of that era are always careful to do right by social mores.)
The pub table of four leads with distinct back stories presents some varied characterisation, and lends itself to the portmanteau approach popular at the time. Director Lewis Gilbert tells the story in Double Indemnity-style flashback, nailing exactly the correct noir vibe, but resorting to some preposterously clunky imagery at times – gravely ominous signage in particular. The heavy-handedness arguably comes full circle and ends up agreeably kitsch, but it’s plain that The Good Die Young would be a drastically reduced proposition without the twin pillars of Laurence Harvey and Stanley Baker. Within a slightly shaky narrative framework, Baker gives a brilliantly enclosed, wounded and human portrayal of the good-hearted Mike. His body and spirit are now seriously flagging after too long a career as a journeyman boxer, his final pay-day squandered by his wife on her errant brother. He and Harvey are both outstanding in this movie, the two of them capable of bringing quality to any film, but all the acting is good. Ex-US Army soldier Joe (Richard Baseheart) and USAF sergeant Eddie (John Ireland) complete the set of sitting ducks for an increasingly maniacal Rave. Joe’s troubles with a coercive mother-in-law who is deliberately straining his marriage are touchingly done. Joan Collins, on the cusp of stardom, is Joe’s well-meaning English wife. John Ireland has the toughest gig: there’s not a lot of meat on the bones of the Eddie character, with only a slightly improbable and downtrodden relationship with Gloria Grahame’s extravagant actress to go on. Grahame brings a touch of Hollywood gold, and Robert Morley as Rave’s stuffy father is nuanced enough to tell us that he is afeared of his insane son.
After a modicum of token reluctance and a few more rounds of drinks, the other three men come round to Rave’s way of thinking and agree that the panacea to all their ills is to follow him into a perilous mail robbery. If credulity is by now being over-stretched, let it be said that The Good Die Young does have some points to make. There are tranches of dialogue in which Ravencourt raises the at-the-time-touchy issue of conveniently trumpeted Second World War heroism versus an indifferent country in terms of reward and opportunity. Rave is a dangerous, money-grabbing scoundrel, plain and simple, yet the film seems interested in drawing a parallel between his behaviour and the war. The bounder angle wins out in the insinuation that his war record may be a fiction. However, in a scene deleted from the domestic version but preserved in the American release, Rave puts his dislike of the country’s attitude to war veterans in forceful terms, stating acidly that “the good die young.” Someone, somewhere —a censor or a backer—did not approve. There are presages here of a slightly later heist movie, The League of Gentlemen, which also raised the thorny issue of disaffected veterans, although among a far better-drilled gang than The Good Die Young’s bunch of random guys at the end of various emotional, matrimonial or financial tethers (and not headed up by an obvious lunatic). Harvey’s Ravencourt becomes ever more unhinged, the smile accelerating through charming and straight on to demented, suggesting that he’s in this for the violence just as much as the money: this is finally proven when, inevitably, guns make an unannounced appearance.
Given the film’s title, it is a gloomy irony that several of the cast actually did die young. Laurence Harvey passed away at the age of forty-five, his former wife Margaret Leighton at fifty-three. Stanley Baker died at forty-eight, and Gloria Grahame at fifty-seven. Joan Collins of course has bucked this unhappy trend, as did Robert Morley and the director Lewis Gilbert.
With Laurence Harvey, the line between the man and the actor is faint to say the least. Like Joe Lampton in Room at the Top, it seems that he never felt able to live publicly as his authentic self. He may well have done, if given more time. Instead he addressed the world through a persona, increasingly an amalgam of his characters, a figure who ended up manufacturing a kind of louche, Wildean quotability. One of his most telling utterances is this well-studied line, proffered mid-interview: “Someone once asked me, 'Why is it so many people hate you?' and I said, 'Do they? How super! I'm really quite pleased about it.'”
It could be straight from Ravencourt himself.--Neil Jackson