The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
“The men who broke the bank – and lost the cargo!”
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Director: Charles Crichton
Cast: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sidney James
Synopsis: A meek bank clerk who oversees the shipment of bullion joins with an eccentric neighbor to steal gold bars and smuggle them out of the country as miniature Eifel Towers.
As far as gold bullion heists go, the one featured in Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob is relatively simple. Perhaps that’s because screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke, who also wrote Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt for Ealing, actually approached the Bank of England for ideas on the best way to steal a large sum of money from them. The suggestion the bank came back with is the one that Clarke used in the movie, and, if anything, illustrates just how much the world has changed in the 60-odd years since The Lavender Hill Mob was made. Today, a shipment of gold bullion would be transported across London in a fortified security van manned with armed guards; back then, you had two middle-aged security guards driving a van with a square of wire across the back windows…
The mastermind behind the heist is Holland (Alec Guinness – The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars), a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job it is to accompany the bullion. He’s a dedicated employee of the bank, but like most of us, he longs for a life of wealth and luxury, and constantly being within arm’s length of untold riches is more of a temptation than he can bear. When he meets Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway – Brief Encounter, Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter), a businessman who manufactures miniature lead replicas of the Eiffel Tower for export, the two men decide they have the perfect method of exporting the stolen gold out of the country…
The Lavender Hill Mob is probably the earliest comedy heist movie, arriving less than a year after the release of The Asphalt Jungle, the first movie to focus on the meticulous planning of a robbery from the viewpoint of the criminals involved. There have been a number since – Two-Way Stretch, The Italian Job, etc – but none have reached the comic heights of the original. Guinness and Holloway’s opposing acting styles complement one another perfectly, even though logic insists that Holloway’s exuberance should overwhelm Guinness’s diffidence, and the support from Sid James (Carry On Cabby, Carry On Cruising) and Alfie Bass as their accomplices add a physical element to the humour.
As with all heist movies, it’s not the actual robbery that occupies the bulk of the film’s running time, but the planning and preparation, followed by the slow unravelling of an apparently foolproof plan after the apparently successful heist. Most robbers aren’t caught while committing the crime, but during their subsequent attempt to move the proceeds, a fact which The Lavender Hill Mob observes. But it’s not intrepid detective work by the police which do for the gang, but Holland’s meticulous nature (and bad luck).
Someone somewhere (probably America) will one day remake The Lavender Hill Mob, but they’ll never be able to recapture the simple, uncomplicated humour of the original which, while it might not often have you laughing out loud, will surely have you smiling for most of its running time. In many ways, it’s not the plot that’s important but the quirky, eccentric – yet quintessentially British – characters. What’s more, these characters are virtually inseparable from the actors who play them. Guinness is Guinness, James is James, and so on. They didn’t change from film to film, they didn’t employ any methods. And yet they had a depth and warmth which prevented us from ever growing tired of them. In fact, we would have objected had they tried to be different…
(Reviewed 6th July 2015)