Original release: December 8th, 1955
Running time: 91 minutes
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writer: William Rose
Cast: Katie Johnson, Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Danny Green
During my A-Level Film studies, there was a module on British Comedy and its values. The two films that our class was to study were the second in that series of innuendo-laden banter, Carry On Nurse (1959), and one of the late Ealing Comedies which was recently remade by the brothers Coen, The Ladykillers.
One of these films has gone to become one of my absolute favourites and the other most certainly has not; The Ladykillers springs to mind almost immediately when someone asks about great British films alongside things like The Third Man, The Red Shoes or Brief Encounter. Whilst those others may pip it to the post, Alexander Mackendrick’s pitch black farce remains one of my favourite comedies of all time.
The film sees a little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), living alone in post-war London in her lopsided little house and in need of a lodger. A dark figure stalks her back to her home and his shadow looms ominously at the front door; when Mrs Wilberforce opens it she is greeted by the sinister smile and intellectual charm of Professor Marcus (the wonderful Sir Alec Guinness).
She takes the Professor at face value, and he begins to lodge with her but the practice sessions for his string quartet he holds in his rooms with his band mates “Major Courtney”, and Messrs “Harvey”, “Robinson” and “Lawson” are not all what they seem. These fiendish devils are in fact the crew that Professor Marcus has put together for a robbery: Claude (Cecil Parker), Louis (Herbert Lom), Harry (Peter Sellers) and One Round (Danny Green). However, when the plan – which involves an unaware Mrs Wilberforce – goes awry, the scoundrels must find a way to silence the old lady and escape with the loot.
The first thing to note about the film, and the thing which forever endures in my memory, are the performances. Alec Guinness is absolutely wonderful as the dastardly Professor Marcus, as he goes seamlessly from the charming professor who secures the room from Mrs Wilberforce, to the rat-like villain with his arched shoulder and his almost Nosferatu-esque clawed hands and vile sneer. He could not really look more villainy in those moments and when Louis crosses him and questions his authority we are in little doubt what he is capable of.
He is ably supported by his nefarious associates – Cecil Parker completely charming as the upper class con-man, Herbert Lom threatening and volatile as the European foreigner, Peter Sellers perfectly encapsulates the stereotypical youths of the day as the Teddy-boy Harry, and Danny Green gives the hulking but dim-witted One Round enough menace and heart to make him work. In addition to all of that, of course, is the lovely Katie Johnson playing the oh-so-sweet old lady Mrs Wilberforce.
These stereotypes were very much the point of The Ladykillers as it looked to cast a satirical eye over post-war England as well as be a great black comedy. Each of the characters represented something much more than a lowly crook, and it would be hard for me to sum this up more eloquently and concisely than the director Alexander Mackendrick:
Whether or not the filmmakers intended to show a dying Britannia or an enduring one, you will have to find out yourself. On top of all of that, there is of course the fact that The Ladykillers is delightfully funny. I admit, you will not find yourself rolling in the aisles and the couple of attempts at slapstick early on do not quite work but once the getaway has gone wrong, the humour comes thick, fast and black as oil.
Whilst the gang know that they must dispose of the poor old interfering Mrs Wilberforce, none of these nasty criminals wants to do it themselves. This taps very much in to the portrayal of her as a typical sweet old lady who an audience member would almost certainly associate immediately with their own grandmother and which we must assume that the criminals begin to do as well; it takes a drawing of straws to make the decision.
I love the darkly farcical final act of The Ladykillers the most, especially when the mad-genius Professor Marcus begins to show the insanity towards which the old lady drives him, and the bodies begin to pile up – or begin to get dropped into passing trains, to be more accurate.
What gives the films its consistent appeal though are those perfectly pitched stereotypes and the great performances. I come back to this again, again and again; it’s a true classic.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.