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Crooks in Cloisters (1964)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK Ltd

Main image of Crooks in Cloisters (1964)
35mm, colour, 97 mins
DirectorJeremy Summers
Production CompanyAssociated British Picture Corp.
ProducerGordon L.T. Scott
ScreenplayT.J Morrison
 Mike Watts
Original StoryMike Watts
MusicDon Banks

Cast: Ronald Fraser (Walt); Barbara Windsor (Bikini); Gregoire Aslan (Lorenzo); Bernard Cribbins (Squirts); Wilfrid Brambell (Phineas); Corin Redgrave (Brother Lucius); Francesca Annis (June)

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A gang of London crooks rob a train, then hide out in a remote island monastery, posing as monks. With the help of a local fisherman they continue to deal in stolen goods, but Superintendent Mungo is on their trail.

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With the novel premise of a gang of London criminals hiding out in a run-down island monastery, Crooks in Cloisters is a likeable comedy, with adept casting and serviceable gags - mostly flowing from the absurdity of hardened villains attempting to pass themselves off as monks. Little Walter, the gang's tubby mastermind, insists his cohorts lead an ascetic lifestyle, wearing the monk's habit, working the monastery farm and sleeping in cells on hard wooden boards. The gang complain that they would be better off in jail. Soon, however, with the help of local fisherman and one-time smuggler Phineas, the felons are up to their old tricks: counterfeiting banknotes, 'reconditioning' stolen furs, and melting down gold.

With neither the depth nor the darkness of The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), which presumably inspired its fish-out-of-water scenario, Crooks... relies heavily on the strength of its cast. Ronald Fraser and Bernard Cribbins deliver solid comic performances, as the firm but fatherly Little Walter and the greyhound-obsessed Squirts, respectively; Barbara Windsor amuses as Bikini, the tough-minded, culinarily-challenged tart-with-a-heart, while Wilfred Bramble, as the old fisherman Phineas, whose fondness for the bottle matches his love of a scam, contributes memorable moments in support. There are also surprise appearances from Corin Redgrave and a young Francesca Annis.

The film mixes sentimentality with broad, coarse humour - when Walt successfully milks a cow, he is congratulated on having "pulled it off again" - but an acceptable balance is generally maintained between the two tendencies. There are enjoyable gags in the details, as well: Squirts hides stolen copies of The Sporting Life inside the Catholic Herald, Walt inappropriately offers a genuine monk a cigar, then bewilders him with cockney slang, and even certain names provoke mirth - who knows what Dangerous Herbert of the Jelly mob is capable of?

Perhaps the film's greatest distinction, however, is its admittedly indirect role in propelling Barbara Windsor to international stardom in the Carry On series. In her autobiography, All of Me, Windsor recounts how she was invited to lunch at Pinewood Studios by Ronald Fraser, with whom she had enjoyed working on Crooks... As she tottered over to Fraser's table, she was spotted by producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas, leading to a call a month later inviting her to appear in Carry On Spying (d. Gerald Thomas, 1964).

David Morrison

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Video Clips
1. Father superior (1:33)
2. Straight up monks (4:06)
3. Village visit (4:13)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)
Cribbins, Bernard (1928-)
Rawlings, Terry (1933-)
Windsor, Barbara (1937-)