What begins as an admittedly quaint museum piece of pulpy British filmmaking quickly changes into quite a sinister film without losing any of that vintage hook that’s surely the main source of appeal for films such as Payroll. Payroll doesn’t just tell the story of a heist, but just how wrong a heist can go. It revels in how its characters are hardly the stuff of moral complexity, yet their constant sparring from the disastrous fallout of the criminals’ heist attempt, mixed with the devilishly twisting script, drives the film with ruthless charm.
Watching Payroll, it almost feels like director Sidney Hayers (who also cut his teeth filming episodes of The A-Team, Knight Rider (!), Baywatch (!!) and the dungaree-tastic version of The Famous Five from the late 70s (!!!)) spent the entire production advising his cast to spew forth as thuggishly rigid a performance as possible, whilst choreographing everything else with a deft sense of delicate precision.
Everything is shot with a near-perfect balance of grace and grit, and fans of long-ago industrial landscapes in movies will find much to revel in Payroll’s down-and-dirty setting of Newcastle, full of cramped, dishevelled pubs and backstreets too rough for anything other than feet to venture down into. And a pre-Omen Billie Whitelaw is always a source of nerdy, reel-centred interest.
Payroll does have its misgivings though, which really would come to light had the film been handled in any way other than the brutal manner in which it’s produced here. The characters have a vague whiff of stereotypical stock fodder, but any whiff of such smells is shooed away by how hard everything Payroll hammers into you. Similarly, the script has all the clichéd revenge tactics every character can think of, and the police are utter cretins in making some sort of orderly resolution to everyone’s crimes. One copper even has the nerve to fall for Whitelaw’s hateful widow character, a plot device that can hardly be called welcome in any context.
But Payroll is such a beast of a film, any criticism of it is in danger of being beaten to a pulp. Payroll has moments of pure, palpable violence that somehow never stray from its gorgeously classic production values. It’s also all the more chilling when one remembers that even in the year of the film’s release, 1961, the death penalty was still a justifiable means of punishment for criminals. However, given the fates some of these characters receive, swinging from the gallows may well look rather tame. A marvellous slice of somewhat-forgotten vintage filmmaking, with everything let loose in raw form.
PAYROLL / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: SIDNEY HAYERS / SCREENPLAY: GEORGE BAXT / STARRING: MICHAEL CRAIG, FRANCOISE PREVOST, BILLIE WHITELAW / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW