The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

21Sep10

Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Herbert Lom (Mr. Harvey), Peter Sellers (Mr. Robinson), Danny Green (Mr. Lawson / One-round), Cecil Parker (Major Courtney), Katie Johnson (Mrs. Wilberforce). Screenplay by William Rose. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Rating: U. Running time: 91 minutes.

Classic black comedy and now an exemplary, infamous piece of British cinema, The Ladykillers gives us Alec Guinness as the leader of a pack of clumsy thieves who hire a bedroom out from the most delightfully innocent of little old ladies as a base near Kings Cross station from which to plot their crime and lay low afterwards.

I say the woman’s delightful, and it cannot be understated just how much this is the case. Mrs. Wilberforce is the kind of person we all wish deep down was our nan: constantly offering and pouring tea and coffee as frequently as she spills out anecdotes and entertains the locals with her wild imagination. She’s the local London community’s sweetheart, unable to walk down the street without everyone greeting her, and regularly popping into the police station to report alleged sightings of UFOs they politely pretend to take seriously.

It’s pretty damn perfect, then, when she unknowingly picks up a suitcase on her guests’ behalf that happens to contain their dodgy earnings. She believes the men staying with her are musicians, and justifiably so when they all arrive with cellos and violins. As soon as the door is closed behind her, however, they just play some tunes on the record player. The cover very nearly works until, when leaving, one of the men’s cases spills open and wads of cash go flying onto the pavement, just as a newspaper is delivered informing Mrs. Wilberforce of a recent robbery.

The fact the Coen brothers remade this is possibly the most unsurprising thing you’ll ever hear. It’s got everything they love in a story: amusing innocents tied up in devilish situations, before the crime in question turns into calamity as the gang self-destructs over what to do with the now-knowledgeable woman. They temporarily trick her into thinking she’s a guilty accessory, then draw matchsticks over who is to strangle her, before finally turning their malice on themselves in the most hilarious of unfolding arguments.

Marvellous is definitely the right word to describe this composed and quiet masterpiece. I want a Mrs. Wilberforce to live down my road too.

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