The get-rich-quick scheme is one of the great creative backbones of Hollywood. Cinema is overloaded with stories of plucky underdogs, sly grifters and the oddball ensembles they compile to pull off the crime of the moment. The heist is our most glamorized version of these crimes. Audiences have spent decades being enamored by well-dressed men in their slick cars with flawlessly labyrinthine plans. Even the grimier versions have a certain kind of allure to them, imbued with that near-primal notion that we, the viewer, would love to get in on the action. Christopher Nolan moved worlds and melded minds for his heists in Inception, while Michael Caine and the crew of The Italian Job made it impeccably cool, the embodiment of the 1960s British invasion. The conventions remain the same, even as the aesthetics change. For That Sinking Feeling, the heist is classic cinema, even though the stakes seem almost hilariously low.
Released in 1979, Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling is the very first Scottish feature film to be funded wholly from within Scotland. Made for about £5,000 and featuring a cast of non-professional Glaswegian teens from the Scottish Youth Theatre, the film paved the way for Forsyth’s career as the nation’s leading filmmaker. It also helped to carve out a new niche amid the rather binary cultural understanding of Scotland. At a time when on-screen Scotland was mostly shown to be either Ken Loach or Brigadoon, That Sinking Feeling manages to be its own thing, a realism-focused kitchen-sink comedy (literally) with one foot firmly in the world of the Hollywood heist.
A group of jobless teenagers spend their days meeting up and lamenting their lot in life, unable to afford even the 45p for a burger and coffee from the local take-away van. There’s no work to do, nor are there any options for even mindless entertainment. Then, one of them comes up with a plan. Like many a downtrodden hero in their time, they’ll put together a heist, a way to get rich and escape their current circumstances. The target: a warehouse full of stainless-steel sinks.
The tropes are all there: the gang comes together, they discuss the plan, disguises are sorted out, the getaway driver provides the wheels and the threat of the polis is always on the horizon. The locals aren’t quite the same. Nobody meets for drinks in a neon-drenched bar or shares banter over a poker table. Instead, the boys — for they are all basically kids — meet in messy bedrooms with football posters on the walls and arguing neighbors upstairs. Caught up in the mystique of their “big job,” one of the teens holds a meeting on a pond in a peddle-boat to avoid snoopers.
Forsyth’s work is full of plucky young people with untapped potential. The boy’s bathrooms of Gregory’s Girl, the rom-com that helped Forsyth to break into America, is a veritable hub of innovation, with students running gambling rings and their own stores from the cubicles. The canny residents of Furness in Local Hero play up to the clueless American’s quaint expectations of them to try and get more money out of his company in exchange for their town. The gang of That Sinking Feeling have boundless skills and resources never before put to good use, as well as the enthusiasm to match. Their ideas aren’t fully formed — the plan to have two gangly boys dress as cleaning ladies to distract the night watchmen is especially flimsy — but the basic thought process behind them isn’t. Every heist movie does what they do, and they’re clearly borrowing their plans and rhetoric from the best. They just don’t have the money to recreate their predecessors, which poses an interesting conundrum for the wannabe crooks: if you need money to steal money, how do you get anything done?
The Glasgow of 1979 is one of clear social decay, something the characters morbidly joke about being the city’s most defining characteristic. The Victorian tenements are in bad shape. The streets are dirty. There’s a general mood of fatalism in the air, even to the backdrop of 70s print wallpaper. It’s a dishearteningly familiar image to many Scots, both on and off-screen. As if in reaction to the heather-filled hills of tartanry and near-primal emotion of early Hollywood Scotland, British cinema in general turned sharply towards the hard-hitting social realism of Loach and company, and Scotland stayed there for the ensuing decades. The country was firmly a backdrop for varying stereotypes and national assumptions, be they the shortbread tin tartanry of Rob Roy and Braveheart or the poverty-ridden miserablism of Trainspotting and its myriad rip-offs. There were obvious exceptions to the rule, but Scotland’s cultural image remains heavily defined by this dichotomy. Just ask any Outlander fan what they think our country represents.
What makes That Sinking Feeling different to the cinematic homogeny that followed is its truly lived-in quality. This is a city, not a setting. The idea of it being the hub of a slickly organized crime is its own melancholy joke, one that would be echoed in the opening scenes of The Full Monty, wherein the only prospects for an out-of-work steelworker is petty theft. The teenage protagonists of That Sinking Feeling are wholly Scottish, right down to the occasionally tough-to-understand accents. (Infamously, the actors were redubbed for the American release with softer accents that made everyone sound like Miss Jean Brodie, a move that felt like its own kind of cultural heist.) Forsyth would play around more with these cultural and cinematic expectations in Local Hero, a film that swears its eccentric charm on its sleeve while gleefully exploiting the exploitation of the American and English cinematic stereotypes of Scotland that defined the country to the rest of the world.
Forsyth’s also not afraid of denting the warmth with moments of darkness. That Sinking Feeling opens with one character, Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), trying to kill himself via cornflakes, leading to a friend lamenting that “there has to be more to life than suicide.” These are bored kids with nothing else on their plates and, even amid the black humor, their obvious depression is not downplayed. Social deprivation has given them little to live for, so why not nick a few sinks and hope for the best.
Against the odds, and with a few bumps on the road, the heist succeeds, but the criminals don’t exactly make bank from it. They hoped for a few hundred quid and that’s what they get, certainly not enough to send themselves off into the sunset as Hollywood would demand. Their lives are not suddenly abounding with opportunities, not in Margaret Thatcher’s Scotland with the Poll Tax around the corner. Both upon the film’s initial release and in the decades that followed, the melancholy that surrounds this truth has not even slightly dimmed.
That Sinking Feeling ends with the successful crooks eating ice-cream in the back of their heist van. Ronnie shares his plan for their next hit: the Irn-Bru factory. It doesn’t get any more Scottish than that.
Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found at Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm and WhatToWatch, among other places. She’s also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.