Monday, 15 March 2010
6. The Ladykillers (1955)
Dir: Alexander Mackendrick
Between 1947 and 1957, Ealing Studios produced a series of comedic films which have come to be regarded as classics. The Ealing Comedies, as they have collectively become known, are frequently held up as examples of great British filmmaking. With their peculiarly British approach to storytelling and humour, there is a cosy atmosphere about the Ealing comedies which often belies the actual material. The best of these films usually have a blackly comic streak running through them and this is certainly true of the two most brilliant Ealing Comedies: 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949) and 'The Ladykillers' (1955), both of which use murder as a subject for laughs.
'The Ladykillers', usually recognised as the last of the great Ealing Comedies, is probably also the very best of the lot. Set largely in and around one small house, 'The Ladykillers' is briskly paced and tells its simple but effective story in a compact 90 minutes. William Rose (the writer behind British comedy 'Genevieve' and who would later write 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner') has written a very tight script that relies heavily on situation above all else for its humorous appeal but throws in some moments of belly-laugh slapstick for good measure. Another asset to the film is director Alexander Mackendrick, who had already directed previous Ealing Comedies 'Whisky Galore!' (1949), 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) and 'The Maggie' (1954). Mackendrick juggles the subtler comedic moments and the slapstick well and manages to make scenes of four grown men chasing a parrot (a concept that could have been disastrous) genuinely funny.
The third real asset 'The Ladykillers' boasts is the wonderful Alec Guinness. One of the great actors of all time, Guinness was already a mainstay of Ealing Comedies, most notably for having played no less than eight different roles in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' and for giving a perfectly judged, Oscar nominated performance in 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951). As "Professor" Marcus, the leader and mastermind of a gang of criminals, Guinness gives a positively electrifying turn in which he has already out-acted most other performers you could name before he even opens his mouth. His first appearance in the film, as he emerges from the shadows in a doorway to reveal a facial expression you instantly know is untrustworthy, is etched on my brain forever and is surely one of the great first appearances of a character.
The rest of the supporting cast is filled with talent, including future 'Pink Panther' co-stars Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, and the disarmingly sweet but disconcertingly indestructible Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce, the little old lady the gang plan to dupe into helping them steal a fortune from a security van. While many scripts would make the robbery itself the main focus of the story, in 'The Ladykillers' it is merely a fleeting set-piece early in the narrative. Mackendrick and Rose are keen to get the gang back into Mrs. Wilberforce's oddly lopsided house where their subsequent confinement leads to the real nailbiting battle of wills and subsequent murderous machinations. In fact, 'The Ladykillers' is at its weakest on the few occasions it ventures out of the house and its surrounding area. The robbery is merely a necessity to the plot and is dispensed with relatively quickly, along with the only truly unsuccessful scene in which Frankie Howard and Kenneth Connor make cameo appearances as an antagonised barrowboy and a taxi driver respectively. In this scene, the comedy becomes too broad and silly for even Mackendrick (who did a stirling job with the earlier parrot scenes) to handle as applecarts are spectacularly upset and punches are thrown at the flimsiest of provocations.
This one hiccup is easily forgivable, however, given the great robbery planning scenes that precede it and the even better scenes that come afterwards, in which the criminals true identities are discovered by the staunchly honest Mrs. Wilberforce, setting in motion a desperate chain of events which are both hilarious and genuinely dark and exciting. While many have noted that 'The Ladykillers' lacks any big laughs, this sentiment is usually expressed by those who favour discernible jokes over a cumulatively funny escalation of events. There is clearly room for both in cinema and 'The Ladykillers' is one of the prime examples of how to execute the latter. The deeper into trouble the crooks get, the greater their desperation and the louder our laughter. I can think of few scenes that tickle me more consistently than the image of Alec Guinness bent awkwardly over the piano as the criminals are forced to endure Mrs' Wilberforce's tea party with fake smiles when they should be making their escape.
(While it is better not to spoil 'The Ladykillers' for those who have not seen it by saying much more, I should add that there is also a 2004 remake that should be avoided at all costs. Amazingly, this version of 'The Ladykillers' was written and directed by The Coen Brothers, easily my favourite directors of recent times. It seems a shame that my first mention of the Coens in this blog should be in relation to their foolish attempt to remake an inimitable classic but expect to see at least 8 or 9 of their masterpieces cropping up for review as this blog grows in size).
'The Ladykillers' is a film that manages to appeal to tastes across the board. It is lighthearted enough for family viewing on a Sunday afternoon and yet it is dark enough to appeal to those who crave something edgier. It has oodles of great character and situation-based humour and yet it also has people falling through chairs and chasing escaped birds.It has laughs but also thrills and moments of genuine suspense. Best of all, it has Alec Guinness, surely an actor who offers something for everyone. If you never see him in this role, you'll never understand how the line "Put him in the barrow" is one of the funniest in the history of British comedy.