What’s not to love about an Ealing comedy?
There’s great actors, clever storylines and just a little farce thrown in for good measure.
The Ladykillers is a black comedy, from the pen of William Rose, and featuring Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Jack Warner, Katie Johnson and Alec Guinness whose false teeth surely deserve a billing of their own. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who also helmed the Guinness comedy The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers could easily have been a stage play instead. But with Ealing behind it, it becomes something else entirely.
One commentator upon leaving the cinema called it “dated”, which seems disingenuous given it was filmed and is based in the 1950s. And given this was the period which spawned the Cray brothers (recently seen in Legend, with Tom Hardy playing both characters), it’s hardly a fair comment.
The entire plot hinges on a dotty old lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Johnston), who has a habit of wandering into the local police station to chat. They treat her kindly and move her on her way when things get too busy. Enter Professor Marcus (Guinness) and his travelling players. He hires Mrs. Wilberforce’s upstairs room for music practice, and the ungainly quintet wander up and down during the day. However, they’re playing a different tune, and it involves thousands of pounds which they successfully purloin in a simple, low-speed robbery involving blocking the path of a security van and blowing the doors off. The job is completed with the help of unwitting old lady Wilberforce, sent to the train station to pick up a chest for Prof. Marcus. And all seems well. However, a mistake by one of the quintet forces a return to Mrs. Wilberforce’s home to try to explain away the fact the music case was filled with notes (money that is) rather than a cello. Here’s where the black comedy starts, with bodies being disposed of left and right. Marcus tries to balance the more homicidal instincts of Louis (Lom) with the need to get the hell out of Dodge before the police arrive.
If anyone tried making this as a modern movie, undoubtedly this would be the part where the thriller would collide with the story; however, as a comedy, there needs to be a lighter touch, which is where the comedy comes from, with Wilberforce trying to convince the robbers to hand back the money, visitors who want to hear the quintet play (they’ve been using LP recordings whilst planning their heist), and the to-and-fro of drawing the short straw to off the old lady which ends in the robbers disappearing off the railway bridge one by one.
Nowhere else can a deep metallic thud of someone falling to their death elicit a laugh.
For such an old movie, there’s a tendency to look back and wonder about pacing and story. Yet here there’s not a moment of celluloid that’s wasted; like so many good stories, everything is there for a reason, from the introduction to Mrs. Wilberforce and the dark shadow following her, to the final denunciation of Louis versus Prof. Marcus fighting it out over the train line. Dialogue-wise, The Ladykillers is a cracker, with well-written conversational dialogue which informs rather than tells, and is character appropriate. There’s no exposition, just plot, which many modern writers could learn from.
And sure, you could argue the Police could have been a bit quicker off the mark to catch the criminals, but it’s hardly feasible to call modern drama particularly accurate in this age of 45 minutes to solve a murder.
In the end, it’s touch and go who’ll survive, but really it’s obvious when you think about it, with the priceless bookend of Mrs. Wilberforce visiting the police station and abandoning her long hated umbrella.