The Ladykillers (1955)
“Who was that lady I saw you outwit last night? That was no lady…That was ‘Mum’ Wilberforce, a lovely old doll, well known to the police, and landlady to the shadiest bunch of characters in London!”
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Cast: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker
Synopsis: Five diverse oddball criminal types planning a bank robbery rent rooms on a cul-de-sac from an octogenarian widow under the pretext that they are classical musicians.
Apparently, when he was offered the role of Professor Marcus, the slightly unhinged criminal genius in The Ladykillers, Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai) believed the role had Alastair Sim written all over it. The producers wanted him, though, so Guinness brought a little bit of Sim to the part while also modelling Marcus on theatre critic Kenneth Tynan who, like the professor, had prominent teeth and the affectation of holding a cigarette between his middle fingers. While Marcus certainly makes a memorable comic villain, it’s the frail, slight figure of 77-year-old Katie Johnson that casts the picture’s largest shadow. Johnson, a stage actress whose screen roles had largely been confined to bit parts, was so keen to win the part of sweet little old Mrs Wilberforce — or Mrs Lopsided as her quartet of visitors christen her — that she offered to pay her own insurance when Ealing voiced their concern about her advancing years and frail health. Ironically, the younger actress the studio initially selected for the part died before filming began.
Mrs Wilberforce is an eccentric old lady, a bygone from the Victorian age whom the world has largely passed by. She seems an easy dupe, then, for Professor Marcus (Guinness) who moves into her lopsided house as a lodger, from where he plans to mastermind an audacious robbery (for what is today the rather underwhelming sum of £60,000) from a security van. Marcus has recruited four accomplices to help him carry out the heist, an old-school gentleman who calls himself Major Courtney (Cecil Parker — The Admirable Crichton, I Was Monty’s Double), an unsmiling criminal clad in black (Herbert Lom — The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, A Shot in the Dark), a punch drunk boxer nicknamed One-Round (Danny Green — Hey! Hey! USA, Seven Waves Away), and a teddy boy named Harry (a rather pudgy Peter Sellers — Dr Strangelove, A Shot in the Dark), and they meet at Mrs Wilberforce’s house under the pretence of being a musical ensemble who have gathered to rehearse their musical performance.
Mrs Wilberforce is such an innocent, harmless figure that Marcus figures he can, without her knowledge, find a part for her to play in the robbery, and asks her to collect the loot, pretending it’s a package for the Major, from a platform at Kings Cross station where the crooks place it while the police search for parcels heading out of the station. The plot doesn’t quite go to plan when Mrs Wilberforce forgets her umbrella and returns to the station to pick it up, an unscheduled diversion which has the on-looking gang in a major panic, and which results in the police actually unloading the loot from the back of the cab for her after she becomes embroiled in an argument with a barrow boy (a young Frankie Howerd) on the way home. However, with the money in their possession, the crooks can finally breathe easy — until, that is, Mrs Wilberforce gets wind of what they’ve been up to.
The Ladykillers is the last of the great Ealing comedies from the 1940s and ‘50s and is by far the funniest of them all, even though its humour is of the blackest kind imaginable. The diverse characters complement one another perfectly, and virtually every cast member plays their part to perfection. Katie Johnson looks as though a strong wind would blow her over, but she proves to be an indomitable foe for the crooks who earn her wrath. Never fully aware of the jeopardy she is in — the thought of having to sew mailbags for her unwitting part in the robbery seems to be her biggest concern — her apparent naivety is at odds with the cold cynicism of her guests, all of whom are from the generation after hers in an era when the old values were beginning to crumble. Guinness manages his character’s incremental descent from mild-mannered eccentric to giggling crackpot with style and finesse, while Herbert Lom impresses simply by playing his character straight in the face of the growing mayhem that surrounds him. It’s a shame that Sellers and Parker weren’t given more screen time — much of Sellers’ performance was cut from the finished version, apparently — as they both feel a little under-used, although Sellers does at least get a second credit for supplying the voices of Mrs Wilberforce’s parakeets!
The Ladykillers is one of those rarities — a film that is fully deserving of the classic status that has been bestowed upon it. It might look quaint and outdated to those used to a constant diet of digital effects and rapid editing, but for those who appreciate an era that now seems so much gentler than our own, it provides a unique oasis of quality and class.
(Reviewed 30th July 2014)