Monday, March 10, 2008

The Bank Job - How the Public Was Robbed

by Vanessa Leggett

The British crime thriller The Bank Job scored big at the box office over opening weekend. The movie is based on a 1971 bank burglary in London. At the time, the size of the take—$1.2 million—was second only to the Great Train Robbery, another infamous U.K. heist from the era. That the bank burglary failed to rivet the public in the same way says nothing about the sex appeal of the story.

The Bank Job weaves a rich tapestry of corruption and intrigue. According to the film, the reason the story has not survived in memory or secured crime-ballad status has nothing to do with the crime, but everything to do with the cover up. The heist that came to be called the "walkie-talkie bank job" walked off the pages of history, saying very little in passing.

Within four days of the bank burglary, the government gagged the press, citing “national security.” The Lloyds Bank in the Marylebone section of London had not been targeted for the vault's cash and jewels as the public and all but one of the looters had been led to believe. The film proposes the operation was set in motion over some nude photographs of Princess Margaret in a ménage à trios in the Caribbean.

The photos were contained in a safe-deposit box that belonged to Caribbean native “Michael X” (Michael de Freitas), a murderous thug, drug kingpin, and extortionist who fancied himself a revolutionary during the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

By threatening to release the photos of the princess at her royal worst, Michael X was able to engage in international trafficking and brutal extortion schemes without fear of arrest. The film also suggests that other looted safe-deposit boxes contained blackmail material from another organized crime figure, a Soho pornographer, who'd stashed photos of British authorities in compromising positions at brothels as well as records of bribes paid to Scotland Yard. The princess’s porn pics and the ledgers of police payoffs meant that organized crime had the British monarchy by its crown jewels.

After surveillance showed that Michael X kept a safe-deposit box in the Lloyds Bank at 185 Baker Street, British authorities decided to act. But they could not storm the bank with a warrant, drill open the box, and seize its contents. That would have made the matter public.

"Until we get our hands on these snaps,” observed an official, referring to the photos, “the police can’t move, the public prosecutor won’t move, the home office doesn’t want to know. There can be no connection to us."

So instead of sending in a team of law enforcement, the film has MI5 (Britain’s FBI) sending in a team of small-time crooks.

"They do things coppers can’t,” one agent explained.

The bank raiders were recruited by a street-smart seductress who was working with the government in exchange for clearing her own record. The ex-model approaches a group of petty thieves she knew from school, tells them she’s dating a man connected to the bank’s security detail, and that the alarm would would be disengaged for a week while the bank serviced the vault.

That weekend, when the bank was closed and the alarm—purportedly—disarmed, the looters tunneled their way into the vault. The “no alarm” device might have been an embellishment to make the story more believable—how else could they have worked in the vault for so many hours without anyone responding?

According to the New York Times piece that ran the day after the burglary, the alarm was working at the time of the heist. The actual window of opportunity given to the crooks was not the lack of an alarm, but the lack of response from law enforcement. The newspaper reported this from Scotland Yard: "33 hours and 40 minutes after the alarm—bank officials found the strong room ransacked and the 15-inch-wide hole in the floor" (New York Times, Sept. 13, 1971).

Police had checked the bank’s strong-room door eighteen hours prior to finding the looted vault. But because they saw no sign of forced entry—the thieves had tunneled into the vault—investigators assumed that the bank had not been raided. In fact, the crooks inside the vault that Sunday afternoon could hear authorities on the other side.

"Everything’s fine,” a policeman said. “No intruders whatsoever."

These and other quotes were preserved on tapes made by a ham radio operator who happened to overhear the burglars, who were using walkie-talkies to communicate with their rooftop lookout across the street—a plot twist so bizarre, it has to be true. The New York Times published excerpts the day after the heist in a piece that carried the headline "A Radio Ham Tunes in London Police To Tape of $1.2-Million Bank Robbery":

"My eyes are like organ stops, mate. I’m not going to be any good tomorrow. I can hardly see now."

"But you can go to sleep tonight. . . . Listen, it’s not a bad rate of pay, is it?"

As the thieves loot the safe-deposit boxes, the woman, whose voice is heard in the background on the recordings, finds the blackmail pictures and ledgers. But as she’s examining the nude photos, the lead thief catches on, realizing he's been set up to get her into the vault so that she could access safe-deposit box 118, while he and the other unwitting thieves paid attention to the jewels and cash in the other boxes. Still, he agrees to help the woman, a lifetime friend and former lover, fearing that MI5 will kill her once they have their photos.

While negotiating with those who have an interest in the photographs and ledgers, the band of burglars tries to gather its own intelligence, searching newspapers for coverage of the heist. But MI5 had already issued a D-Notice to muffle the press, citing a threat to national security.

"If the news could disappear,” the woman says, riffling a newspaper, “so could we.'

In the end, the raiders managed to get away with the crime. And if the filmmakers’ account is true, the government managed to get away with robbing the public of a story that should have been fully covered by the press.

"Scotland Yard ordered an ‘internal inquiry’ into ‘disturbing aspects’ of police handling of the case,” read the last line of the only contemporary New York Times report. Any findings from the "inquiry" have remained internal.

Most of the principals in the story have died. Actress Saffron Burrows, who plays the femme fatale, told the Los Angeles Times that a photo of people connected to the crime exists, but not much else. No jewelry or cash was ever recovered.

"We believe some were convicted and some got away,” she said. “Because of the gag order it’s been very hard to unearth the truth." Putting a lid on the press has a way of doing that.

Burrows also revealed that one of the bank raiders is still living and was consulted for the film. Small chance the public will ever know that man's real name.

Nor will we know the names of any of the players. The 1971 New York Times piece identified “Bob” and “Steve” as names on the taped communications. But neither of those names was used in the film, which, in closing credits, acknowledged the names in the film were fictitious, in order to “protect the guilty."

Just who is guilty and of what must be left to conjecture. Filmmakers cannot be faulted for playing fast and loose with what little facts they had. In its review, the New Yorker characterized the movie as “jauntily mixed” fact and fiction with “what sounds like the party gossip of many decades."

With the release of The Bank Job more than three decades after the heist, the public is finally seeing a return on what most of us did not know was our interest in the crime. Specifically, how the highest levels of British intelligence might have covered crimes of its own.

Since any hard, cold facts have proved as fleeting as the cash, the irony is that this loosely-based-on-truth film—made thirty-six years after the heist—will likely go down as the definitive account of the crime. That much, you can take to the bank.


Donna Weaver said...

Fantastic story, Vanessa! I love the ham radio operator angle. I wonder what happened to him and how the press managed to learn of the existence of the recordings. Facinating!

Kathryn Casey said...

Great review, Vanessa. I have only a scant recollection of this. Now I understand why.

Lynette said...

Great post, Vanessa! I went to see the film last week and was blown away by what the gang got away with and how it was covered up at the time.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Thanks, Lynette. That was my impression when I saw it over the weekend. Because the gov't issued the order to stop the presses, I was surprised to find that old New York Times article with recorded communications between the burglars. Glad you enjoyed my take on it. Appreciate your taking the time to comment.