For quite a while after the Blu-ray format became prevalent we heard the wailing that, while many a new blockbuster was getting the High Def treatment, there weren’t many older classics available. Things have changed and we now have a steady stream of vintage movies being dusted off and prepped for release in 1080p. Over the last year, Optimum Releasing have been responsible for the digital restoration of movies like ‘The Railway Children’, ‘Breathless’, ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ and ‘The Cruel Sea’. They have an increased commitment to preserving and restoring the vast library of classic titles that they manage on behalf of Studio Canal at a new state-of-the-art temperature controlled storage facility at Pinewood Studios. Albeit based out at Pinewood, they’ve been busy digitally restoring movies produced at another famous British studio – namely Ealing, synonymous with comedies that many have attempted to copy but never bettered.
Currently enjoying a re-issue in Cinemas to mark its 60th Anniversary, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ now gets its UK Region free Blu-ray release. I have to admit to a soft spot for this movie, in much the same way that I like ‘The Italian Job’. For all you know they’re breaking the Law, you don’t half hope they’ll get away with it - especially when Banks are currently so popular.
Henry Holland (Alec Guiness) has worked faithfully for 20 years as a bank transfer agent supervising the delivery of gold bullion. A shy, retiring chap - completely inconsequential to his employers - he has long dreamt of a way to plan and execute the perfect gold robbery. He befriends Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a manufacturer of die cast metal souvenirs and suggests that with his production experience they could melt the gold down into Eiffel Tower souvenirs and thus smuggle the gold to France. The pair decide they need the services of a couple of professional criminals, Lackery (a pre-‘Carry On’ Sid James) and Shorty (the great Alfie Bass). Together, as the Lavender Hill Mob, the four plot their heist, leading to unexpected twists and turns.
Now, you didn’t really think I was going to tell the whole story, did you? There are at least a couple of generations of kiddywinks out there who will have missed out on this gem, so I’m not going to spoil it. This is the kind of film that, when it’s shown on TV, you end up sitting down and watching despite the fact that they’ll have dredged up a washed out grey print that’s seen better days. The good news is that the Optimum Blu-ray looks very good indeed, but more of that under the Picture Quality area of this review.
The film has a wonderfully comfortable charm about it – a bit like a favourite bedtime story that kids ask to be told regularly. Then there are the faces. Apart from those already mentioned, there’s a young John Gregson as the Police Detective on the trail of the gang as well as a whole host of character actors you recognize but somehow can’t name. One name that jumps out is a young Audrey Hepburn who appears in a minor role ( basically a walk on with one line) during the opening sequence as Holland chats to a ‘friend’ at a table.
Directed by Ealing stalwart Charles Crichton (who many years later directed ‘A Fish Called Wanda’), the film moves along at an entertaining pace, taking just enough time to introduce characters and set up the robbery without dragging. Much of the enjoyment comes from the great, Oscar winning script by T.E.B. Clarke, which perfectly captures the speech patterns of the period. Produced under the watchful eye of Michael Balcon, it’s therefore surprising that the film contains some actual location shooting in Paris rather than back projection process work in the studio.
60 years on, the film still looks good and so it should come as no great surprise that the cinematographer was Douglas Slocombe. This is a cameraman who really knew how to light and shoot black-and-white. There’s a high key light, low fill and a rim light on each major character. You can just imagine him positioning every lamp.
The whole enterprise flows nicely, directed by an experienced hand and all the characters seem likeable. The sequence where Holland and Pendlebury set out to recruit their two pros has a madcap element to it as they broadcast the fact, in loud voices, on the London Underground that Pendlebury’s premises will be easy prey to criminals due to a faulty safe. You couldn’t get a better pair than Sid James and Alfie Bass to play the shady guys and it’s funny when they meet and start to swap notes on jobs they’ve done, ignoring the fact that they’ve been caught red handed.
Despite the meticulously detailed planning of the robbery, the real fun comes when the crate containing the solid gold Eiffel Tower souvenirs is mistakenly opened and they’re sold to a group of schoolchildren. Our conniving pair use their wits to retrieve each one, but come up against a strong willed kid who won’t let them have hers.
At the end of the day though, this is really Alec Guiness’ film which he walks away with quite effortlessly as the much put upon gold transfer agent who is totally undervalued by his bosses. It’s great to see the ‘little man’ outwitting those who have held him down for 20 years - or does he?
This is a great Sunday afternoon film for a rainy day that will hold an audience’s attention for its full 80 minutes running time. It’s always a pleasure to watch this much loved classic.
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