One of the greatest of the Ealing comedies
148The blackest of all the Ealing comedies was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and with a cast list that includes Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Jack Warner and Frankie Howard. The Ladykillers is probably the most darkly sinister yet hilarious film ever to be made at the famous British studio. It was also one of the last films to be made at Ealing before the studios were sold to the BBC in 1955.
It's one of those movies that could be showing when you turn the television on and, although you've seen it several times before, you still sit down to watch just a couple of minutes - yet you end up watching it all the way through. There's something so entrancing and captivating about the story - or is it the rich characters, or maybe the fact that it's a window on a world that no longer exists. Who knows for sure, but it can easily become the subject for heated debate among film buffs - and that group almost certainly includes many modern day film makers who draw upon it as a research tool for their own work.
The idea for the story is reputed to have come to scriptwriter William Rose in a dream and was overheard by director Mackendrick in the Red Lion Pub, across the road from the studio after a day's work. So for the generation who have yet to see The Ladykillers here it is in a nutshell. Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) the mastermind of a gang of crooks takes up lodgings in a lopsided house owned by the widow Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). Under the guise of rehearsal sessions for a string quintet, the gang plan a robbery and involve the unwitting, little old lady by asking her to pick up a trunk from the railway station containing the loot. Naturally, she finds out (too late) and the gang plan to do away with her but none of them really have the wherewithal to carry out the task. The film becomes very dark here as the gang turn on each other and a series of bodies find their way northwards from London's Kings Cross in railway freight trucks.
The script is kept simple, but there are some great lines - or rather there are lines that are cleverly delivered by Guinness and that's what makes them great. For the role of Professor Marcus, Alec Guinness made use of a top set of protruding teeth to help him get into character. Some actors claim it's the shoes, so why not the teeth? Cecil Parker plays the role of the pompous Major Courtney to perfection, as it was the kind of character he'd played many times before. A young Peter Sellers portrays the greasy haired Teddy boy Harry as the bungling kid who'd like to be a tough guy. Herbert Lom is the most menacing of the group with his gaunt hoodlum looks and most threatening way of holding a violin case. Danny Green, a gentle giant of a man, plays 'One Round', a punch drunk ex-boxer turned crook who doesn't like being called stupid. So much for the criminals, it's Katie Johnson as the well intentioned disaster on legs, Mrs Wilberforce, who glides through the film and gives Alec Guinness a run for his money in the screen presence stakes.
The darkness of the script is amplified through the shadowy lighting of Director of Photography Otto Heller, while clever Director Mackendrick achieves his aims without feeling the need to show us any graphic violence on screen. There's a lesson here for many a young director. Jack Warner, who starred for many years as TV's 'Dixon of Dock Green' appears as the friendly Police Superintendent who humours Mrs Wilberforce and her ramblings - an act that makes the finale more amusing. Frankie Howerd does a broad comedy turn as the barrow boy who becomes involved in an altercation with taxi driver, Kenneth Connor. It's a great 'spot the bit part player' movie too with many well known faces from British Cinema and TV in the background. In the 'not a lot of people know that' category it's worth listening out for Peter Sellers as the voice of Mrs Wilberforce's parrots.
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