Movie Review – The Ladykillers (1955)

by NIR SHALEV

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Mrs. Wilberforce is the nicest little old lady.  She is righteous and is always in a positive mood, and everyone is nice to her, in turn.  One day the shadow of a man appears in the streets and follows the old lady to her home.  The shadow turns out to be one Professor Marcus (Sir Alec Guinness) and he dropped by to answer her advertisement about “rooms for rent.”  He informs the old lady that he and four other acquaintances have formed a string quintet and that they will be dropping by, every so often, to practice.

The five-some are a group of criminals who plan to rob an armored vehicle in broad daylight and while planning out their daily routines, are playing a record-player upstairs in order to disguise their conversations from the little old lady.

The plan is nearly flawless and the old lady, believing she’s picking up Professor Marcus’ luggage at London’s King’s Cross train station brings the suitcase with the loot to her own property.  But when she sees one of the “musicians” accidentally knock over his cello case, revealing hundreds of bank notes the crew decide they must remain a little bit longer; just long enough to dispose of the old lady.

The most interesting aspect of the film, aside from the fantastic performances, is the visual appeal of the old lady’s house.  Due to the bombings of WWII her house is slightly lopsided; pictures hang crooked and cannot be adjusted, windows and door frames are also slightly crooked.  And with the colorful wallpapers on the walls her house seems slightly gothic and lovely at the same time.

There are also a lot of exterior shots of train stations, railways, and basically every other aspect of the King’s Cross area, in conjunction with the planned robbery and events happening throughout the third act.  We see the places and then the places become characters in the farce.

The film has somewhat pastel-like coloring: reds, blues, greens, browns and purples dominate all aspects of the frame and the character’s clothing.  The colors are vibrant and they seem to belong to the overall aesthetic of the film’s comedic atmosphere.  But deep, dark shadows are visible all around as well, creating contrasts of light and dark; an early indication of bad things to come.

Sir Alec Guinness is like a screen chameleon: he plays Professor Marcus stealthily like a cross between Alastair Sim and Count Orlok (the vampire of Nosferatu), bearing bucked teeth like a rodent.  He is slightly pale in complexion compared to everyone else and he is also the criminal master-brain of the outfit.  The other four acquaintances are caricatures, as well: One-Round/”Mr. Lawson” (Danny Green) is a really big guy who is angered when others call him dumb; Harry/”Mr. Robinson” (Peter Sellers) is a Cockney criminal bearing a scar on one cheek but is more of a pussy-cat than tough guy; Claude/”Major Courtney” is an older gentleman who looks like a cross between a detective and a university professor; and Louis/”Mr. Harvey” carries a switchblade and dresses like a gangster, with a fedora and sharp suit.

Katie Johnson, at age 77, plays Mrs. Wilberforce like the old lady with whom you like to converse, but for no longer than a few minutes because she tends to trail off towards other topics that are connected and in effect, she can talk for hours.  She is honest but not the brightest light in the house.

The film has many small comedic touches in the interactions between the gang and their landlady that contribute to making it so funny. The criminal’s planned robbery is masterful but the in-between time is where they need practice.  For example, whenever Mrs. Wilberforce approaches their room to offer them tea or biscuits they are standing around holding their assigned musical instruments improperly; sometimes even upside-down.

The film never loses it pacing or footing and always remembers that the characters create the situations, be they better or worse.  It is a farce filled with excellent comedic performances and no actor upstages another.  The compositions in each shot of the film have a great visual appeal that complements it while the comedy keeps the audience entertained without resorting to slapstick.

The Ladykillers was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and is one of a group of famous post-war English comedies made by Ealing Studios. It is a tour de force that did not need to be remade, even though its remake was helmed by the Coen Brothers.  It stands today as a favorite of many and can only benefit from repeat viewings.  This is a rarity of a comedy.

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