UK (1955) Dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Is there such a thing as a criminal mastermind? They can devise complex, ingenious, and audacious plans to commit a robbery that in theory are foolproof. The only thing they never envision is being caught – or that their downfall would come from an unlikely source.
Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) is an eccentric old lady living in the equally old house she shares with her parrots as her only company, which leads to her imagination running away with her. One day, Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) arrive at the house to rent a room for him and his friends to practice their music – except this quintet are not classical musicians but a criminal gang.
Comprised of Major Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker), Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers), Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom) and ‘One-Round’ Lawson (Danny Green), the group are plotting to steal a huge amount of money arriving at the nearby Kings Cross train station. The heist is successful but Mrs. Wilberforce provides inadvertent obstacles in preventing the gang from leaving with the money, leaving them with the only option to kill her.
Regarded as one the jewels in the Ealing Comedy crown, The Ladykillers is a rather dark comedy in an era when the studio was known more for its rebellious satires, and breezy working class capers. Of course, they have form in utilising the heist concept in The Lavender Hill Mob a few years before this film, another example where things go badly wrong, whilst murder was on the agenda in Kind Hearts And Coronets.
For such a quintessentially British film, it is remarkable to note screenwriter William Rose was actually American, meaning perhaps the 2004 Hollywood of The Ladykillers wasn’t sacrilege after all. There is a case for disputing the “comedy” label on this film, as the laughs aren’t exactly frequent or truly hilarious, coming more from the odd ironic one-liner and pathos of the situation. That is not to say it doesn’t throw up the odd genuine laugh out loud gag but it takes a while to get used to its dry tone.
Quite a tropey collective, Marcus gives off the most dangerous vibes with his pale visage and sinister buckteeth, followed by Harvey, dressed in black and permanently scowling. As the youngest, Robinson is a bit of a teddy boy, One-Round is the hired muscle but a bit slow whilst the Major is the least likely criminal looking of them all, more an articulate bluffer hoping to the do less work than the others.
The heist isn’t so extravagant, the genius is convincing Mrs. Wilberforce to pick up the crate on their behalf and take it home so they can legitimately claim ignorance if they are eventually caught. The ruse works but Mrs. Wilberforce almost jeopardises the whole thing by getting involved in a public skirmish with a fruit barrow boy (Frankie Howerd), her taxi driver (Kenneth Connor) and a horse!
Unfortunately, their departure is scuppered when one-Round’s cello case is caught in the front door of the house and the money spills out. Marcus quickly concocts a lie but Mrs. Wilberforce isn’t sure she believes it until news of the robbery goes public, and again, Marcus tries to put a semi-moral spin on this victimless crime. However, the kindly old dear has sealed her fate in the eyes of the gang, but nobody wants to be the one to finish her off.
Despite being a comedy there are plenty of moments of nervous tension many dramas and thrillers would be jealous of, as if Alexander Mackendrick forget it was supposed to be a comic affair. The final act in which the gang turn on each other is quite grim in how quickly the betrayals occur and in the equal haste and cold nonchalance in dealing with the fallout. Echoing the darkness of film noir, this tonal shift is not unexpected yet still makes an impact after only teasing us with it for most of the film’s run.
Since this was mostly filmed on the Ealing soundstages, the use of green screen in many shots is all too evident and sadly not so good looking from being shot in colour, exposed more so during the last act. It is therefore a boon that the wonderful cast come together so well and inhabit their characters that we forgive any technical flaws, since we are compelled by them at every turn.
Alec Guinness openly channels his inner Alistair Sim – who was originally intended for the role of Marcus – bit still makes the role his own, whilst Peter Sellers in his movie debut is quite restrained after years of being a Goon. Herbert Lom is suitably menacing and the only gang member not to exude any comic undertones to undermine the dangerous situation they are in.
Yet, the funniest character is arguably Mrs. Wilberforce, despite doing absolutely nothing comic for the entire film which is why she is funny. So easily trusting, or more accurately happy to have human company, Mrs. Wilberforce is the embodiment of pure innocence while craziness occurs around her, becoming the anchor for the gang’s activities. 76 year-old Katie Johnson was award a Best Actress BAFTA for this role but died two years later.
Having been heralded as an all-time classic of British cinema, does The Ladykillers still hold up today? Technically yes, because the story does offer a few twists and surprises that are quite bold for 1955, especially for a dark comedy. Also, it is nice to see the original work after the numerous films it influenced to get the reference points.
But, I fear it will be too subtle as a black comedy for a generation of film fans weaned on modern genre entries that aren’t afraid to cross lines of sensitivity. I personally enjoyed, maybe not as much as I hoped from expecting something similar to other Ealing comedies. Perhaps it will all fall into place for me on a second viewing.