After-Image: ‘The First Great Train Robbery’ (1978)

After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: Do You Ever Tell The Truth?

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: Do You Ever Tell The Truth?

Sean Connery is an interesting case study of a Hollywood career, simply because he’s had two careers. It’s a rare actor who gets to reinvent themselves on screen – Eastwood didn’t, he reinvented himself as a director and Sutherland has just kept playing largely the same kind of roles up until the present day – but Connery moved from the early Leading Man phase of his career into a second, equally successful career phase, as a mentor and character actor.

Today’s film is interesting as it catches him on the very cusp of this transformation. The full power of his charisma that carried him through the early years married to the intelligent performing choices that helped him survive some of the dreck towards the end.

That film is, of course, The First Great Train Robbery* and the shot is this:

Michael Crichton, it was said, had more money than God. What people often forget is that he has the IQ to match. The Great Train Robbery is, for my money, his greatest novel  – based on a true story, he uses a huge amount of primary source material and writes his thriller like a faux-history text – and he directs this version with aplomb. It’s filled with fabulous supporting turns from every British character actor you can think of and Connery has to bring his best to avoid Donald Sutherland walking off with the entire film, as light-fingered as the cracksman he portrays. The film is full of great lines (the greatest of which is actually taken from the trial transcript: when asked why he carried out such an audacious and dastardly plan, Connery’s Edward Pierce pauses for a moment and simply replies: “I wanted the money.”)

This moment, though, is properly clever and, I think, suggests that Crichton never really got the due he deserved as a director. Pierce is an enigma; someone who seems to be working class in origin, but who moves easily and smoothly through the business and upper classes; someone who’s been to America, or possibly France, or possibly neither; someone who’s known equally by the police, the criminal underworld, and managers of London’s leading banks. The film as whole deals with the difference between outward appearances and the interior reality of Victorian London frequently but never in a preachy way – another example of Crichton wearing his research lightly – and, to my mind, the whole thing comes together here.

Piece is asked by his lover/confidante where he learned to ride. “France. (pause) An estate. In France.”

“Not America?”

“I’ve never been to America.”

“Do you ever tell the truth?”

Peirce, by now arranging his hair in the mirror (and there is an essay to be written about the way the criminals of this film use clothes to change their social status on a scene by scene basis, allowing themselves to move frictionlessly through the different levels of society) stops for a moment.

“The truth?”

He thinks for a second, his face stony.

“The truth?”

There is a pause. His eyes are flat, unfriendly.


And then he smiles.

It’s a great shot. There are two Pierces, one of a number of dualities in the film and signals as clearly as possible that we do no know which version of himself this man presents to us is the real one. The background is dark, placing him out of context is a black void. Divorced of context we can’t help but see Connery as well – another duality, the actor who is so much bigger than the part – and the focus on his face, dominating the frame, lets him bring his charisma to bear. More than that, though, there are two design choices that are incredibly effective. First, the clothing. This man – although our protagonist, is a villain; he lies, he cheats, he steals, he sends a man to his death in the very opening of the film. But here he wearing green and cream; soft, earth and nature tones in direct contrast to the blacks of the establishment figures he’s working against (the same choice is evident in Sutherland’s Agar who wears a velvet frock coat of autumnal hue). The choice of velvet – soft, rich, tactile – marks him out as a sensuous and non-threatening.

The next technical trick is the catchlights; this is a single light above the performer’s face angled in such a way as to ‘catch’ their eyes. You don’t think that charming twinkle is there by accident, do you?

Finally, the framing. By having Pierce look into the mirror and back at us, the shot takes on the flavour of a Shakespearean aside; he is directly addressing us. And the convention of such things – even playing today when Claire Underwood addresses the camera at the end of House of Cards’ rubbish fifth season – is that an aside is the truth. So when Peirce tells us he never tells the truth, we know… well, we know he’s telling the truth.

*That’s the British title, to avoid confusion with Buster whatsisface’s glorified smash’n’grab. You can find it on Netflix under the American title of The Great Train Robbery.

 Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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