Friday, March 10, 2017
The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)
The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), and The Ladykillers. Murder and larceny are treated almost as genteel, if eccentric, pursuits, avoiding violence unless it becomes unpleasantly necessary. It's significant that the most menacingly violent member of the crew that pulls off the robbery in The Ladykillers speaks with a foreign accent and is played by the Czech-born actor Herbert Lom, as if only a foreigner would think of killing the sweet old lady (Katie Johnson) who threatens to reveal their crime to the police. It's possible, too, that the mastermind of the crew, Prof. Marcus (Guinness), is not entirely British -- his surname has foreign overtones -- although the oversize false teeth Guinness wears do seem like the product of British dentistry. The Ladykillers is a wry tribute to the Britain that had just muddled through World War II and was emerging from postwar austerity. The house in which Mrs. Wilberforce lives, perched precariously on the brink of a railway tunnel, has had its upper stories condemned as unsafe after the wartime bombing, but it's filled with tributes to the Empire that was crumbling as steadily as the house. She lives alone, guarded only by her late husband's parrots, which he had rescued from the ship he went down on, and by the local constabulary, who tolerate her frequent visits to the station to report things like a neighbor's sighting of a flying saucer. She is obviously an easy mark, however, for Prof. Marcus and his gang: Claude (Cecil Parker), Louis (Lom), Harry (Peter Sellers), and the punchy ex-boxer One-Round (Danny Green), who pose as a string quintet practicing in the rooms Marcus leases in her house. (They play a recording of a Boccherini minuet while they plot the heist, and afterward stash the loot in their instrument cases.) Naturally, they bumble themselves into revealing their secret to Mrs. Wilberforce, and after deciding that they must kill her to protect themselves manage to bumble themselves into killing one another instead. As usual with Ealing Studios comedies, the acting is uniformly delightful: Guinness said he modeled his character on Alastair Sim, for whom the role was originally intended, and it's fun to see Sellers and Lom together some years before their re-teaming in the Pink Panther films. Interestingly, this tribute to the Brits was written by an American, William Rose, who received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Rose had stayed on in England and married an Englishwoman after service in World War II. Otto Heller's color cinematography and Jim Morahan's art direction add greatly to the success of the film.