10 July, 2010

The Ladykillers (1955)

Killing joke

The late, great Sir Alec Guinness was the recipient of the EFA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 - we pay tribute here to one of his finest films.

One of the cinematic sensations of the 21st century is that the Tom Hanks-led remake of this emblematic Ealing comedy, with Alec Guinness the mastermind of a brilliantly surreal blag featuring a gang disguised as chamber musicians, did not make fans of the original throw themselves under a train. Could there be a better testament to the muscle of the scenario and scripting of Alexander Mackendrick’s fine work?

The current writer confesses to being a devotee of railways, (for shame) a Londoner and a faint, one-remove remembrancer of the make-do-and-mend Britain ironically celebrated in Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. Thus, this masterpiece weaves a special spell.

The film is shot in colour, yet you’d hardly know it. It is set, purposely, in what was once a hinterland of railway sidings, Scammell Scarab mechanical horses, inerasable smuts, gasholders, back-to-backs, north of the Euston Road; here rise the spires of St Pancras; there the exhaust of a departing loco of one of Gresley’s sublime A4 streamliners, up the brick-lined defile of a gradient from King’s Cross. We are in Britain, 1955; and the emphasis is less on the fact that nothing much seems to have changed rather than nothing can ever change. Hence the chintzy interior of Guinness and co’s hired lodgings, the end-of-terrace house owned by Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), whose parlour presents a gaily chromatic contrast to the black-pudding-coloured grime of the outside world. Few, if any, British movies have ever summarized time and place with more poetry. Halliwell called it ‘oddly dislikeable’. Takes one to know one.

Guinness’s cadaverous charm was never more unnervingly effective (his first appearance at the door of Mrs Wilberforce is one of the most gruesomely ingratiating entrances in all cinema); trigger-happy pro (Herbert Lom); there’s the edgy chancer/corner-boy (Peter Sellers), the doddering old lag who passes perfectly as a ‘Major’ (Cecil Parker) and aphasic thicko/Bernard Bresslaw-wannabe (Danny Green). So far, so predictable; but the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and the miraculous way in which it is made entirely believable – an early LP playing to reproduce the sound of the quintet the gang pose as and cover for their discussions – represents British film-making at its most powerful.

The slow, slightly bathetic unravelling of the heist, the inevitable betrayal of the crooks as perpetual losers – none of them are remotely ladykillers, figuratively or literally – comes to a climax in the steam and smoke of of the railway whose soundtrack is as omnipresent as a cold; clunking signals, tootling whistles, the susurrus of rolling stock. All is half-obscured by a pea-souper of what were then not called carbon emissions.

The Ladykillers is a very strange movie – it is simultaneously ultra-English but also, in its pacing and plotting, very un-English, i.e. unHollywoodized. It is, this writer contends, one of the ten movies a Brit should be in possession of to educate foreigners in our ways. That the word ‘discuss’ should be appended to this review is surely proof of its qualities. So go on. Discuss…

Awards: Click here for details.

Paul Stump
91 mins.

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