The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers (1955)Synopsis: Sir Alec Guinness gives one of his most unforgettable performances as Professor Marcus, the mastermind of a gang of vicious bank robbers who rent a room from elderly widow Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, winner of the British Academy Award for Best Actress). But when the dear old woman begins to meddle in their “perfect crime,” the crooks (including Herbert Lom and the legendary Peter Sellers in his first major screen role) decide that she must be killed. Now after a daring heist, a runaway parrot and several cups of tea, can the most diabolical criminals in London still manage to murder one sweet old lady?

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success), this Ealing Studios masterpiece was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and remains one of the most ruthlessly brilliant black comedies of all time. The Alec Guinness Collection presents this screen legend’s classic comedies including Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Captain’s Paradise, and still considered to be among the greatest movie comedies ever made.

The Ladykillers (1955) 7.75

eyelights: Alec Guinness. Herbert Lom. The old lady.
eyesores: its minor continuity errors. the physical comedy.


Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce: “Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen.”

I first saw ‘The Ladykillers’ sometime a decade ago or so, during a Peter Sellers bender; I had borrowed from the library all the Sellers-related films that I didn’t already have and proceeded to watch them all. I can’t say that I was that pleased with it: I had not expected that this was an Alec Guinness movie, not a Peter Sellers one – Sellers was more of a secondary character, with few lines to speak of. I was left unsatisfied.

However, it has since grown on me.

After my initial reaction, I gave it a few more gos: I recognized that it was a quality picture and I truly wanted to “get” it – just as I thought that I should have in the first place. For some inexplicable reason, ‘The Ladykillers’ had felt flat to me, and much of it passed before my eyes like a blur. It’s only with a few viewings that I started to appreciate its finer qualities, that I started to enjoy the characters and the way that the story unfolded (although it boggles the mind that I hadn’t totally adored its twisted climax right from the start!).

Now I can safely say that I’m a fan. A mild one, but a fan nonetheless.

The story is already pretty awesome: a lonely old widow receives the visit of a man looking to rent a room in her home. He claims to be a professor who needs a place for his small group of amateur musicians to practice in. Little does she know that this is just a front, and that they’re actually using her home to plan a heist together! Out of politeness and loneliness, she ends up frequently intruding on their plans – that is, until she is conned into being a part of it, and realizes that something’s afoot.

Alec Guinness is deliciously creepy as “Professor” Marcus. Not only did he base his performance on Alistair Sims (who was able to play cooky characters effortlessly), but he was greatly assisted by a set of protruding dental prosthetics that gave him an uncomfortable grin, and a make-up application that provided him with an unusual, sickly pallor. Between Guinness’ performance and his appearance, the “Professor” is someone whose hand you wouldn’t shake for fear of losing a finger.

The old lady, Louisa Wilberforce, is a sweet little thing. She’s a pest, certainly, but she’s sweet nonetheless. And that’s why the police don’t pay her any mind even though she’s constantly in their offices babbling on about all sorts of nasty business that she suspects is taking place in her neighbourhood – and in her home. They just laugh it all off and send her on her merry way. There isn’t a mean bone in her body and she is perhaps too much of an upstanding citizen for everyone’s good – as Guinness’ crew is soon about to find out.

Herbert Lom, whom I only know from the original Pink Panther series and the Hammer version of ‘Phantom of the Opera’, play a heavy who has absolutely no patience for nonsense. He doesn’t really have the physique for it, but he certainly had the poise and attitude – he was the most realistic of the lot. I find it especially amusing to watch him hold his violin the wrong way, not caring one bit about the pretense, and only doing so to go along with the Professor’s plan; he holds it with an obvious disdain and barely concealed irritation.

Peter Sellers was less interesting than he usually is, unfortunately. ‘The Ladykillers’ is one of his earliest screen efforts and perhaps he wasn’t yet comfortable in that capacity. Or perhaps he played the character all too well: Harry Robinson is a dull, dumpy and truly low class individual – nothing remarkable or interesting about him. I could barely recognize Sellers the first time that I saw the picture, quite frankly (Of course, this could be intentional. And it could also be due to the fact that I’ve mostly known him in his prime, after his makeover).

Cecil Parker and Danny Green round up the gang as the Major and “One-Round”, respectively. They are both quite good in their roles, and they get enough screen time (perhaps even more than Sellers or Lom), but there isn’t anything especially noteworthy about the characters or performances to warrant mention. They are solid secondary performances, but they also don’t stand out in any particular way.

I think that one thing that helps this film tremendously, and which hampered the Coen Brothers’ remake, is the fact that, back in those days, everyone wore suits to be proper. This means that these guys were much more inconspicuous and, thus, looked more trustworthy than their doppelgängers did in the 2004 iteration – the old lady had less reason to be concerned because they didn’t look so out of place.

The whole heist felt slightly convoluted to me, but I enjoyed that they found a way to include the old lady in the plan without her knowledge, that she played a part in its execution. This added a little humourous tension because she naturally went off schedule, and the thieves then had to worry that the plan might fail. Furthermore, it was useful later on, in that they could attempt to blackmail her with the knowledge that she was implicated.

And I adored the way that the ending of the movie was handled – especially in comparison to the way the Coens did it. I found that the general staging of the last act was better, felt that it was more realistic (for a comedy) in many ways, even though the substance of the two is the same. It just seemed to me that the whole climax was more flowy, that ‘The Ladykillers’ hit each of its marks spot on, didn’t miss a beat. Granted, it’s not nearly as stylish as the Coens are, it’s a more classic approach, but it’s nonetheless a memorable turn of events.

So, even though ‘The Ladykillers’ didn’t slay me, I nevertheless hold it to high regard. For a film of that era, made on a limited budget and with what was then few stars, it’s quite an accomplished piece. It’s a lovely black comedy in the way that only the Brits can do them, and I’m sure that Britcom aficionados must relish this one. For my part, it’s mostly proof positive of Guinness’ acting skill – not only could he deliver in the most dramatic films, including countless David Lean masterpieces, but he could also do comedy exceptionally well.

And that’s reason enough to warrant spending a lot more time with ‘The Ladykillers’, quite frankly – it’s a solid comedy with at least one exceptional performance. Not every film could claim the same.

Date of viewing: January 15, 2013

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