The Lavender Hill Mob

UK (1951) Dir. Charles Crichton

It’s always the quiet ones you need to watch. The unassuming ones, the sticklers for the rules, the ones so devoted to their jobs that their idea of excitement is two sugars in their tea instead of one. Hiding in plain view is the best way to describe them, especially when it turns out they actually are devious criminal.

Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is enjoying the high life in Rio de Janeiro, but this wasn’t always the case for this meek, well-mannered but innocuous London bank clerk. For 20 years, Holland’s duties were to accompany the transfer of gold bullion bars, sitting in the back of the van with the gold to ensure a safe delivery. This steadiness and dedication has earned Holland nothing more than mere praise and simple trust from his superiors.

At the small boarding house in Lavender Hill where Holland resides, a new tenant arrives in the form of artist Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), owner of a small foundry that makes souvenirs for resorts and gift shops. Seeing Pendlebury make paperweights in the shape of the Eiffel Tower gives Holland the idea that this would be an effective way to smuggle gold out of the UK. All they need to try this out is the gold.

Yes, our dreary, humble protagonist is in fact a cunning and wily opportunist with 20 years of knowledge and experience in transporting gold bullion to his name and the trust of his employers. This is a long time for such an audacious plan to gestate but with Pendelbury’s fortuitous arrival, the time is finally nigh for stealing £1 million worth of gold bars.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a heist movie in every sense of the word, with the meticulously detailed plan, a group of willing thieves, the heist itself and the tense, usually eventful fall out. It is also one of the revered Ealing Comedies, part of the legendary studio’s run of classic films that have become cornerstones of British cinema – in fact, it just might be their most famous film although competition is stiff on that front.

Quite what made a perennial nobody like Holland harbour such criminal thoughts isn’t explored, leaving us simply to accept that he was already of venal persuasion when he first took this job. Therefore, his dedication and patience to remaining so outwardly imperturbable and nondescript yet so internally calculating in his fastidious routines is to be admired, at the very least for not collapsing under the weight of this façade.

But that is the genius of it all – nobody suspects the one person who is least likely to commit a crime and Holland has ensured his foibles are sufficient cover for his impunity should he worst ever happen. In this case, is it Holland’s paranoia towards cars following the van, notifying the drivers via a button bell and they are duty bound to investigate genuine or not.

Pendlebury is also unlikely to be labelled a criminal, especially with his own business and international clientele but again, those at the top are usually the worst offenders. The conversation regarding the theft of the gold happens rather quickly (the film is only 80 minutes long) along with Pendlebury agreeing with equal haste, but this expedience is brought into the plot when Holland is rewarded with a promotion to another department bringing the heist forward to the end of that week.

Needing extra hands for the job Holland and Pendlebury loudly advertise for accomplices in public by discussing an unguarded safe at their office. As it happens two men fall for it – Lackery Wood (Sid James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass) – and this criminal cadre is now complete. But on the day of the heist whilst it technically goes to plan, a minor misunderstanding involving Pendlebury almost jeopardises everything.

Screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke, the man also responsible for many other Ealing Comedies, piles on the misery of the aftermath of the heist in this fast-paced script. It might seem like a catalogue of conventions viewed today but in 1951, these ideas were fresh. Clarke got the idea of a clerk robbing his own bank when doing research for the crime thriller Pool Of London, seeking the advice of the Bank of England in how to pull off the perfect heist.

In the grand scheme of things, it is a very simple plan in construct and execution, with the real ingenuity found in Holland keeping up the heroic pretence and deflecting the police from foiling the second half of the plan, getting the gold Eiffel Tower statues to France then pocketing the money. It befalls to Holland and Pendlebury to make this trip when Shorty would rather watch the cricket and Wood’s wife won’t let him go!

One farcical scenario leads to another as the woes increase on both sides of the channel, providing many laughs and some ingenious filmmaking. At one stage, our two desperate pals are forced to run down the spiralling staircase of the real Eiffel Tower, captured through the dizzying lense of Douglas Slocombe with a touch of SFX to accentuate the distance in height being covered.

With Holland being such a relentlessly devious character he should be a figure of hate for the audience but Alec Guinness creates an air of empathy in his portrayal as Holland the reliable worker drone, whilst his criminal side reveals someone with tenacity and guile, almost worth rooting for as he strikes back against his employers. Stanley Holloway is something of a bumbling foil for Guinness, while Alfie Bass and pre-Carry On Sid James play to type.

Don’t let the gentle British comedy label fool you, The Lavender Hill Mob sits neatly alongside any heist film you care to name, complete with the nice twist at the end. Well-paced, great characters, superbly constructed and an Audrey Hepburn cameo to boot, it would be a crime not to check this classic film out.

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