A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a golden age for British film comedy, and Alec Guinness was right at the heart of it with his roles in The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949), The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951), The Captain's Paradise (Anthony Kimmins, 1953), and The Ladykillers (Mackendrick, 1955). It was the period when comic actors like Margaret Rutherford, Terry-Thomas, Alastair Sim, and the young Peter Sellers became stars, and British filmmakers found the funny side of the class system, economic stagnation, and postwar malaise. For it wasn't a golden age for Britain in other regards. Some of the gloom against which British comic writers and performers were fighting is on evidence in The Lavender Hill Mob, but it mostly lingers in the background. As the movie's robbers and cops career around London, we get glimpses of blackened masonry and vacant lots -- spaces created by bombing and still unfilled. The mad pursuit of millions of pounds by Holland (Guinness) and Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and their light-fingered employees Lackery (Sidney James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) seems to have been inspired by the sheer tedium of muddling through the war and returning to the shriveled routine of the status quo afterward. Who can blame Holland for wanting to cash in after 20 years of supervising the untold wealth in gold from the refinery to the bank? "I was a potential millionaire," he says, "yet I had to be satisfied with eight pounds, fifteen shillings, less deductions." As for Pendlebury, an artist lurks inside the man who spends his time making souvenir statues of the Eiffel Tower for tourists affluent enough to vacation in Paris. "I propagate British cultural depravity," he says with a sigh. Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke taps into the deep longing of Brits stifled by good manners -- even the thieves Lackery and Shorty are always polite -- and starved by the postwar rationing of the Age of Austerity. Clarke and director Charles Crichton of course can't do anything so radical as let the Lavender Hill Mob get away with it, but they come right up to the edge of anarchy by portraying the London police as only a little more competent than the Keystone Kops. The film earned Clarke an Oscar, and Guinness got his first nomination.