A criminal mastermind rents a room from an unassuming landlady, intending to use her house as base to operate the perfect crime from. He and his gang seriously underestimate her…
When reviewing The Man In The White suit, I suggested that Alexander MacKendrick had a screenplay so clever it smartly demonstrated the rules of traditional narrative. The wonderful and devilish plot of The Ladykillers (by William Rose and Jimmy O’Connor), four years later, goes further still, by being a perfect execution of the same rules and yet is far more entertaining and watchable. Add MacKendricks consummate grasp of genre and the ease with which The Ladykillers unfolds is so brilliant it is almost rude.
This is one of the finest British films ever made and the irony is MacKendrick and Rose were Americans. Well, MacKendrick had lived most of his life in Britain, but still, maybe their viewpoint was essential, because The Ladykillers is as English as can be, especially in character. Each one is a clear individual, yet they gel together beautifully. Location is also important, with the lonely house seemingly isolated from the town in almost a Western fashion, especially considering the railway that is so essential to the final act.
The blackly comic story, with tinges of horror at odds with the comedy, is about a criminal mastermind, executing the perfect crime, yet failing to account for a frail, elderly landlady who nevertheless will be a formidable, if naive, nemesis. The film introduces Mrs. Wilberforce as an eccentric, amusingly tolerated by the local police (headed by Jack Warner, who else?) as she comes in with all sorts of tall tales about potential crimes. Obviously a regular, you can probably guess how it will end up, but being a little predictable actually helps a film like this, because the central idea is so daft!
The gang of crooks are great fun. Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom are especially so, with able support from Cecil Parker and Danny Green as faithful, dumb, but succinctly named One Round. Leading this motley crew is Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus. It is an astonishing performance and ranks amongst his very best, simply because it is such a complete makeover, yet he engages with the viewer (unlike White Suit) and doesn’t steal the film from anyone. Actually in a nice reflection of the story, he absolutely fails to take anything away from Katie Johnson as the eponymous Mrs. Wilberforce. What a wonderful character! Sums up the Great British little old lady, utterly dotty yet with such elegance (apart from when she deals with her pipes!), as she quietly and quite unknowingly, unravels the successful heist away from the helpless gang, who all come to realise they are utterly powerless to deal with her. It’s a fantastic conceit that gives us some laugh out loud moments. While all the dialogue is as witty and sharp as you’d expect from an Ealing production, Katie’s lines are especially funny (catch the reference to the taxi driver refusing a fare!). Much as I enjoy the Coen brothers’ work, their remake can be considered an absolute failure just based on their versions of these characters.
Marcus should have known though. He is introduced with a passing nod to Hitchcock’s The Lodger (“I understand, you have rrrooms to let”) yet his looming, scary presence is lost on Mrs. Wilberforce and he immediately becomes bothered by her little house that’s as wonky as its owner! Professor Marcus is all about regimented order and his plan to disguise the gang to his landlady as a group of musicians is no accident. Everything he does has a rhythm (Guinness can even be caught almost dancing while performing) and the film follows his beat, apart from Mrs. Wilberforce of course, who is responsible for at least two hilariously farcical set pieces, one involving Frankie Howard! While great use is made of Boccherini’s Minuet –Marcus even hums it when timing the heist- it should not detract from the inventive score that keeps up with the continual changes in mood and genre.
The regimented rhythm allows a light touch and immense scope from the director. It’s a delightful film that should be essential for anyone interested in how films are structured or just simply want a bloody good laugh.