|The Ladykillers (1955)
Run time: 91 min
Genres: Comedy | Crime
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: William Rose
Stars: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker
A gang planning a ‘job’ find themselves living with a little old lady, who thinks they are musicians. When the gang set out to kill Mrs Wilberforce, they run into one problem after another, and they get what they deserve. Written by Rob Hartill
Release Date: 24 February 1956 (Belgium)
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When film studios are churning out rubbish like ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘American Pie’ under the heading of comedy, you have to wonder what sort of brainless morons are filling cinemas with laughter. It is nothing short of tragic that gargantuan amounts of cash are being expended on useless blow-outs like Titanic,Star Wars- The Phantom Menace, and just lately, The Beach. When Ealing Studios ceased production, the cinema world was suddenly very much poorer.
The Ladykillers is undoubtedly one of the finest comedies ever made, certainly the best Ealing film of them all. Here is a film from the golden age of British cinema that will forever amuse and entertain. It is easy to be nostalgic about these old films but they are still held in high regard for a good reason-they were made by people who knew the art of film making. Moreover, they were made at a time when a trip to the cinema was still a special occasion. So they were made with love and care and with respect for the audience.
The Ladykillers is unusual for an Ealing comedy, being made in colour. It would have worked just as well in black and white, possibly even etter.( I have watched it in black and white on TV by turning the colour controls off!) The location shots, which were done around the back of King’s Cross station in London, capture forever something of the old London I used to know as a child.
I suppose they best description for this film is a comedy of a bank robbery gone wrong. The ensemble acting is of the highest order; Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce just about steals the film from Alec Guinness. The hilarious script leaves you wanting more, even though a lot of the comedy is based on sight gags; the extended scene when the supposed ‘musicians’ come downstairs one by one while the Boccherini Quintet continues playing is wonderful, as are the moments involving General Gordon the parrot. The cinematography is beautifully realised and so British.
Having read all of the comments on this film, I was suprised that so many American film lovers liked this film – British comedy like this doesn’t usually travel well across the water. So a sincere big thank you to all of you guys over there who commented favourably on The Ladykillers.
I don’t think that we will ever see the return of institutions like Ealing Studios again, so The Ladykillers should be watched, enjoyed and loved by generations of film lovers to come.
Mrs. Wilberforce, a senile old biddy living with her parrot in a ramshackle Victorian townhouse, is just sitting down to take her lonesome afternoon tea when she hears the bell ring. Rare occasion. She opens the door to reveal a striking-looking gentleman with lank hair and an air of indefinable loucheness. "Hello," he says, smiling graciously and instantly defining his loucheness — his atrocious teeth. "I understand you have rooms to let."
The prospective tenant is played by Alec Guinness, a long time before he attained the respectable old age that would make him such a convincing guru in Star Wars. Here he’s in his lusty comedic prime, and from the moment he makes his unforgettable entrance, you know The Ladykillers is going to be a classic. Somehow, despite the silly cartoonishness of the story — a meddlesome old lady foils the well-laid plans of a group of a bumbling bank robbers — this is an ultra-sophisticated film. And despite the track record of director Alexander MacKendrick, despite the inspired performances he elicits from his cast, chief credit for its success must go to screenwriter William Rose. Most other comedies of the era, even those MacKendrick directed, suffer from forced repartee and obvious one-liners, making the viewer feel like an anchor is resting atop his head. Rose — living up to his name — has a lighter touch, reminiscent of the best comedies of recent years ( namely Rushmore. ) He invests each and every scene with a memorable hook, while at the same time forswearing even the least contrivance.
For an example, take the scene where Mrs. Wilberforce confiscates the crooks’ cello case full of "lolly" and stashes it in a locked closet. In almost any other movie, this emergency would be used as set-up, a new problem to solve, an excuse to pad the running time. In The Ladykillers, however, the crooks simply wait a few seconds until the old bat is gone, at which point one of them, the beefy one, rolls his eyes, raises his right arm, and negligently — it’s such a dainty little lock — staves the closet in. Now that may not sound like much written here, it may not even sound very amusing, but when every scene in the movie boasts a similar surprise, the cumulative effect is exhilarating. Whether or not you enjoy the individual gags.
For some reason, The Ladykillers is never screened, and written about even less. I can ALMOST understand the latter kind of neglect — it’s a hard movie to write about because, for all the talent and skill of its creators, it doesn’t give you a lot to chew on. But while you’re watching, it’s an incomparable entertainment, one of those movies where every line of dialogue, every camera angle, every twist and turn in the story is felicitously, rapturously perfect. A true addiction.
The humor in this movie is not only British, which is notoriously misunderstood by American audiences (and vice versa), which is odd because both the writer and director were American, but it is also now five decades old. Only the best American comedies have lasted anywhere near that long (consider, for example, the sad fate of many of the movies that people thought were really funny in the 80s Police Academy, anyone?). The reason The Ladykillers has not only survived but has now been remade is because the comedy in it is not only effective, but it is intelligent, and it is very difficult not to be impressed by a comedy with a brain.
Alec Guinness is in top form as the leader of the gang, whose members reflects criminals of all walks of life. The ingenious plan is to rent out a room from a sweet old lady while they pull off a heist. The comedy, for me, lies in the difference between what is planned and what is played out, particularly in the difficulties that the gang of criminals have in outsmarting a sweet old lady who acts like a grandmother supervising a group of unruly grandchildren.
The problem that the movie has is that the pace is very slow and much of the comedy has faded over the years, but structurally and intellectually it remains a respectable film, even more now in comparison to its disastrous remake. What went wrong in the remake is that they did not maintain who the character of Mrs. Wilberforce was, because it was the juxtaposition of her as a frail old woman surrounded by toughened criminals that made it funny when things kept going wrong in their plan. In the remake she is replaced by Mrs. Munson, a tough-talking woman who was to be feared from the outset. There is no irony in being overpowered by someone more powerful than yourself from the outset, which I imagine is why the remake also featured Marlon Wayans and a case of irritable bowel syndrome, which I have never seen used in an even remotely amusing way.
While the original film may be a bit too slow for modern audiences, it is indeed charming the way 87-year-old Mrs. Wilberforce continually foils their carefully thought out plans, many times inadvertently. Alec Guinness is wonderful as the band’s leader, wearing outrageous false teeth, nearly rivaling Lon Chaney as the man of a thousand faces, and Peter Sellers is one of the criminals as well. I’m no expert about British comedies or Alec Guinness’ early works, but I can certainly tell enough from watching this movie that the Coen Brothers’ remake did nothing to impress the British about Hollywood’s respect for the classics.
Soon after this atmospheric black comedy begins, aged widow Johnson putters around her house (situated near a railyard) as an imposing shadow seems to peer at her from every window (accented by dramatic music.) When she opens the door, there stands Guinness, in one of his amusingly creepy personas. He rents a room from the lady and arranges to have his cronies come over to practice their quintet. Unfortunately, he has something else in mind and the quintet is merely a cover for a greater plan. The film has detail, wit and character to spare. Guinness (and his friends, played by legendary character actors like Sellars and Lom) are a funny, motley lot. However, the story really belongs to Johnson. Shamefully underbilled and unsung, she perfectly embodies the role at hand and is incredibly memorable in her understated sweetness and supposed vulnerability. This is a woman who looks for the best in everything and everyone and fights injustice whenever she encounters it. Johnson gives a quiet, yet towering performance and it is astonishing how disrespectful her billing is in the film and how little she's been given even in recent packaging. There is nothing wrong with Guinness's work, but this is Johnson's film. (Ironically, according to Robert Osborne, a younger actress was cast in the film, to be made up as older, because the producers felt that the sometimes demanding director would be too much for Johnson to bear. However, that actress died before filming, so Johnson was used and got on fine!) It is truly the type of film that won't be made again. (It may be RE-made, but never with the same quaint, understated style, nor with such polished actors.)