Canada’s most notorious postwar bank robber, Edwin Boyd, broke out twice from Toronto's Don Jail, leading Canadian police on two of the biggest manhunts in the country’s history. Long before he became known as a prison-break artist, suggests first-time feature director Nathan Morlando’s film Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, Boyd was a man desperate to escape.
Inspired by Boyd’s story, rather than literally retelling it, the movie is less a gangster film than an existential allegory of choices and limitations. The handsome war vet Boyd (played by equally handsome Scott Speedman) is a restless inmate in a wintry, half-dead, postwar town, shot by cinematographer Steve Cosens with natural light and a radically desaturated palette that makes Toronto the Good look like Toronto the Ghostly. His father is a sternly judgmental, religious cop (Brian Cox) who thinks his son will never amount to anything. Edwin Boyd, who is trying to keep his English war bride wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) and two kids on a busman’s salary, is desperate to prove him wrong.
After failing to launch an acting career through an acting school bearing Lorne Greene’s name, he goes home, smears on some of his wife’s makeup as a crude disguise, takes his war-souvenir German Luger and robs his first bank. When that proves surprisingly easy, he hits banks again and again, persuading his wife that the new car and toys for the kids are products of his mysterious acting career. The canary-yellow car he buys is one of the few spots of warm colour in the film.
Almost any Hollywood tyro director would use Boyd’s story as an opportunity for operatic action sequences and ironic commentary on celebrity-obsessed culture. Known as the “gentleman gangster,” he treated the hold-up as theatre, leaping over bank counters, flirting with tellers and, later, reading about his exploits in the local papers, which welcomed the excitement.
Yet Morlando’s approach, influenced by interviews with the real Boyd in his old age, is cerebral and melancholic. The tone is more foreboding than suspenseful. The more notorious Boyd becomes, the narrower his choices are. When Doreen discovers the truth about where the money is coming from, Boyd promises to quit – soon. Instead, he steps out of the next bank to face a row of police gun barrels.
In the slammer (where the colours are further reduced to almost black and white), Boyd’s notoriety attracts collaborators. They include a quasi-vaudevillian duo – the volatile muscleman Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), hiding a hacksaw blade in his prosthetic foot, and his diminutive second banana, Willie “The Clown” Jackson (Brendan Fletcher). The Boyd Gang is formed. Outside the walls, they meet more collaborators and their girlfriends, including the bottle-blonde femme fatale, Mary Mitchell (Charlotte Sullivan). Together they drink, revel and plan further glories in a flophouse party room lit by a single sad light bulb.
Unlike its hero, Morlando’s film is content to live within its means, making this less an action story than a modest blue-period life study. Speedman, the anti-hero hollow man, is typically inward and superficially mild. Showboat actors like Cox and Durand tone it down, and Reilly, as Doreen, is the touchstone of domestic reality here: a bewildered working-class wife, whose unuxorious spouse has disastrous ideas of how to impress her.
The script’s greatest deviation from the facts of the case concerns the murder of a police officer, here portrayed by William Mapother as a relentless but sensible Detective Rhys. (The changes emphasize the gang’s ruthlessness, rather than their blundering.) Otherwise, the recreation of period detail is conscientious. Especially good is footage from CBC Television’s first broadcast, anchored by, of course, Lorne Greene, who displays a sense of flourish that scarcely seems credible today.
In the Hollywood version, Edwin Boyd should have gone out in a hail of bullets and twitching limbs. Citizen Gangster deals him a more ignominious sentence: He is forced to become ordinary again.
Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster
- Written and directed by Nathan Morlando
- Starring Scott Speedman, Brian Cox and Kevin Durand
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars
Director Nathan Morlando will be at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, May 11 to introduce the 6:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. viewings of Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster.