The Ladykillers

 ★★★★★ 


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.

The Man In The White Suit

 ★★★★★ 


Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is a quiet scientist working at Michael Gough’s textile mill, but running unauthorised, costly experiments for which he is fired. He gets a menial job at another mill and through a fortunate turn of events gets access to their science lab, where he successfully achieves his dream: a material that is indestructible and never even gets dirty. Stratton’s dream though, turns out to be a nightmare for the industry as it could see them shut down.

The Man in the White suit is one of Ealing’s finest films and may just turn out to be their most resilient, as its themes are timeless and you will likely always find something about the story to identify with. Alexander MacKendrick’s gives elegant direction to his political screenplay which can be interpreted several ways and still packs a punch that gets you thinking. That said, it isn’t as fundamentally entertaining as the other comedies, despite some wonderful set-pieces especially during the experiments, but it must have been a difficult narrative to balance and it all pays off in the sobering final act.

Guinness is brilliant, though slightly unlikeable, as the awkward and unintentionally sneaky scientist. It’s important to note he has no motive except an innocent desire to pursue his talent, which of course we should all have the right to do. After some farcical and fun problems with the experiments almost destroying the mill, he succeeds and Cecil Parker immediately plans to produce it, first making Stratton the white suit of the title. As the industry starts to implode, he becomes a target for everyone. No-one seems to know what to do with him, even Joan Greenwood as the mill owners daughter, who takes up his cause and fiercely defends him. The problem is, he is absolutely altruistic, so no-one has a hold on him. All he wants is for his invention to exist.

No-one is a villain in this film, yet there is massive conflict. Why shouldn’t Stratton develop his skills? The mill owners argue incessantly about how to do handle it, but they’re in business to make money, so why shouldn’t they try to exploit what will surely be the perfect fabric and so the natural endpoint of their industry? But the workers can’t allow it to exist otherwise their jobs will be at risk. The status quo may be boring, but it’s about survival. It’s Capitalist versus Socialist and the story demonstrates the delicate balance that we all need to live in. Greenwood’s role starts off a little pointless (the relationship with Gough seems forced and unresolved, though maybe I’ve missed something), but she adds another interesting layer when her father and the other owners try to bribe her to exploit her friendship with Guinness and she becomes a passionate thorn in their side.

Because Stratton represents a problem for all the other characters, he has little chemistry with anyone and so is hard to identify with for the viewer and occasionally the plot comes undone because of the awkward way he interacts with the other characters. Still, it is the nature of the beast because he is a fascinating construction. He has no back-story and no arc to follow; in effect he is the unknown variable introduced only to demonstrate how dangerous change can be. From a purely technical point, MacKendrick’s narrative is a fascinating example of how to structure a screenplay (following the ‘equilibrium’ theory, the Stratton character is literally the embodiment of the second stage disruption).

So it’s dry and political and is like catnip for film nerds! But at just 85 minutes, it’s also concise and the typical Ealing wit and farce is still present, so it’s great fun too.

The Lavender Hill Mob

 ★★★★★ 


A meek bank clerk who oversees the shipment of bullion joins with an eccentric neighbour to steal gold bars and smuggle them out of the country as miniature Eiffel Towers.

T.E.B. Clarke won a deserved Academy Award for this marvellous screenplay. Still clearly post-war Britain, there are undertones of social and political satire, but it doesn’t detract from a wonderfully funny heist movie. There was a big increase in crime following the war; indeed this was inspired by classic The Blue Lamp with a similar, albeit serious, tone. The police are presented as largely ineffectual (a late scene shows how forward thinking and scientific they are, but are quickly turned into a chaotic mob to the tune of Old MacDonald!), but not unkindly so, which is the enduring skill of Clarke’s films, that he had resolve enough to tear institutions to shreds, but always with a smile.

Of course we no longer reside in “post-war” anything, but the film hasn’t really dated. It’s still an effective heist film with a breezy, hilarious nature that identifies with anyone heading for a mid-life crisis. The premise is infectious. What if you could come up with the perfect crime, exploiting your own daily routine, so you could retire with a fortune? That’s the meticulous plan Alec Guinness has been cooking up for 19 years as fastidious middle-class Henry Holland (or “Dutch” as he asks to be called later on), responsible for transporting gold bullion. He meets jovial Stanley Holloway who makes holiday ornaments and gives Holland the idea of how to shift the gold (disguise it as Eiffel Tower models and ship them to Paris). They quickly ensnare a couple of proper criminals (Sid James and Alfie Bass) and set the plan in motion.

It’s a well done plot authorised by the Bank of England. Clarke asked them how such robbery could take place and they formed a committee to tell him! It bats along and fits such a lot into its short 78 minutes that it feels more substantial yet nothing feels rushed. It even has a framing device; Alec Guinness is telling the story from Rio, where he has been living the high life with a young Audrey Hepburn.

Guinness was without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and his characterisation of Holland is perfect from note one, right down to mispronounced “r”’s and a wonderful cheeky glee that reveals itself in the briefest of moments. There are so many layers to what would be a very two-dimensional role these days. He is intelligent and passionate (his reading of a crime thriller to his landlady also reveals Clarke’s obvious love for pulp fiction, as he showed in Hue and Cry), yet is happy to be a quiet, subservient, pedantic laughing stock to his colleagues. All part of the plan, yet the tics are so organic, he really is all of those things. Honestly, you could watch this performance time and again. Stanley Holloway is at his best too and the scene where Holland drips the idea into Pendlebury’s mind is superb.

Dependable Charles Crichton directs and as with Hue and Cry, some of the photography is wonderful and he finds all sorts of opportunities to stage some great sequences. The charge down the Eiffel Tower is as brilliant as it is indulgent, as is the farcical car chase.

Great fun and still effective. One of Ealing’s most enduring comedies.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

 ★★★☆☆ 

Director Charles Crichton and writer Tibby Clarke team up for the first Ealing comedy to be produced in Technicolor. When an antiquated railway line is threatened with closure, the villagers decide to run it themselves and enter into frenzied competition with the local bus route, with hilarious consequences!

The Titfield Thunderbolt is another charming film from Ealing with a typically witty screenplay from regular writer T.E.B. Clarke, working once again with director Charles Crichton, who together made several Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob, for which Clarke won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

I think he deserved it for this too; it so sharply lampoons British traditions (a love of trains) and problems (selling off industry, despite the loss of community). We are a small country and feel it deeply when a way of life comes to an end, which happens all too often in the name of cost cutting efficiency and bloody health and safety. Though the film good naturedly pulls the leg of traditionalists who are blinded by nostalgia it also rallies against those who ignore it. When John Gregson calls on the villagers to support them running the railway themselves and he says the “village will die without it”, he is sadly correct (in general and specifically if you watch the included clips below). That scene at the town meeting also features a hilarious argument that exposes the absurdity of unions. And later, the vicar panics when he hears they are making a profit. “We’ll be nationalised!” he wails.

There are endless touches like that though; a civil servant arriving at the Ministry for Transport on a scooter or my favourite, Naunton Smith saying he will not be made a fool of, while pulls his suit over his pyjamas. Early on when the vicar first says they cannot let the railway go and is told the Canterbury line closed, he replies, “well, there cannot be any men of faith in Canterbury”! However, Stanley Holloway steals the show as Mr. Valentine, the amiable, but permanently drunk millionaire (or near enough) who agrees to fund the venture. The banter as he is persuaded to do so is wonderful.

This is all in the fabric and sadly, the future of the story. Really the plot boils down to the rivalry as the  bus company try to sabotage the new venture, but the motley crew of amateurs (funded by a drunk, driven by a vicar!) refuse to give in. I’ve never been a train-spotter, but the gorgeous photography could turn anyone into one.

The story doesn’t call for a notable visual flair, but Charles Crichton is clearly in his element and loves playing with train-sets! And seriously, the sight of these engines billowing steam through the countryside is enough to inspire anyone. He also pulls off an impressive crash and the resultant sequence of Dan and Mr. Valentine drunkenly stealing another engine is fantastic. I wonder if this is the first instance of crashing through billboards with apt phrases, a staple of action films? First the engine smashes through one and then a car swerves to avoid it and hits a second sign that recommends careful driving! His last film was A Fish Called Wanda, which also had inspired lunacy.

It’s a lot of fun with a cast of wonderful characters in an eminently infectious and watchable farce. It plays on national nostalgia while pointedly satirising the post-war policies that killed off a way of life, yet it is never being less than utterly charming and is frequently hilarious. Somehow I think Genevieve from the same year is more well known. It also stars John Gregson and the stories bear similarity, but this is far better while the other film has dated very badly.

Hue and Cry

 ★★★★★ 

A group of boys discover the local villains are using a comic to secretly pass plans hidden in the stories…

Ealing’s first comedy is also one of its least well-known films, but this gem is one of the best children’s films of all time, so easily watch-able anyone can enjoy it.

It’s fantastic, riotous fun with an infectious plot that kids would (or should) dream of being involved in. A group of friends of various ages realise their favourite comic full of thrilling stories about ruthless villains is being used by actual ruthless villains to plan robberies. Led by Harry Fowler’s Joe they just dive in to get one step ahead and apprehend the criminals themselves. Damn the danger!

The story is just the sort of Famous Five stuff Enid Blyton built a career on and would one day become elements of Stand By Me or The Goonies, and there are extraordinary scenes that play as traditional thriller; the moment two of the boys visit Alastair Sim’s author is nail-biting with Gothic shadows and Sim’s voice booming out threats, not that he intends to carry a single one out. The real gang are a far more serious prospect. In the final act there are moments of true peril in a scene reminiscent of The Man With The Golden Gun, of all things, when Joe is haunted by an unseen crook’s laughter.

The fantastic cast bring the film to life, especially the kids and the banter is great, particularly during an attempt to torture someone. They’re supported (not the other way around) by reliable character actors like Jack’s Lambert and Warner, as well as the before mentioned Alastair Sim. The plot bats along at a tremendous pace and the production occasionally borders on epic (just watch the swarm of kids when one of the gang sneakily gets a call out on the BBC for “boys looking for adventure!”).

Each character is treated as genuine, so the thugs could be so in any adult film rather than the panto-villains you expect to see in an average kid’s movie. There’s a huge fight scene late on and punches are not pulled by anyone. Whistle Down The Wind or Night of the Hunter are other good examples of this realistic style, albeit more serious, that trusts children to understand what they’re watching without being spoon-fed and protected by cartoonish contrivance.

This was a great period for British film. Ealing demonstrated an identity, purpose, style and conscience in all their films, but this story is set in a fascinating time anyway. Britain was just pulling itself back together following the war and the Empire was all but over along with the outdated class structure. It was a country in limbo and the London of 1947 is a shattered place with entire sections still in rubble. Writer T.E.B. Clarke and director Charles Crichton offer no commentary on the location and turn it into a playground instead, which for children of a certain age is exactly what it was, and perhaps so for criminals too, taking advantage of a society in flux. Whether the film-makers could be so perceptive in 1947, I’m not sure, but it naturally stands for an interesting metaphor. How the kids play in the rubble would be a health and safety nightmare these days though! And we are so much poorer for it.

Passport to Pimlico

 ★★★★★ 

An archaic document found in a bombsite reveals that the London district of Pimlico has for centuries technically been part of France. The local residents embrace their new found continental status, seeing it as a way to avoid the drabness, austerity and rationing of post-war England. The authorities do not, however, share their enthusiasm…

Passport to Pimlico is the epitome of charm. A brilliant conceit delivered with gentle optimism and good natured satire by a cast of well-known British actors, or at least to be well known. Ealing was always smarter than the Carry On series and if you look carefully you may spot a few Carry On faces before they stereotyped themselves. In this one we have Charles Hawtrey for instance and in later films Sid James was a regular. By the way, I do enjoy Carry On, but Ealing managed to be just as funny and allowed the cast to keep enough dignity to pursue careers elsewhere!

Like Hue and Cry, it’s a light film, yet smartly written to lampoon British bureacracy so sharply you may not even notice. You can learn a lot about England from this film, or at least the England we’d still like to be. Despite its age, I like to think there will always be a lot of proud Burgundian’s amongst us! Although both films were written by T.E.B. Clarke, Henry Cornelius’ direction isn’t as ambitious as Hue and Cry, more content to let the simple story unfold without effort, but that’s important, because audiences of the time would have been able to identify very easily with the people of Pimlico. Heck, I know one or two people like that now, I’m happy to say. It’s still the sort of fantasy that dreams are made of; finding a treasure trove under your house, but the daily lives they lead are like anybodies. The Mouse That Roared has a similar idea, but goes for a much quirkier execution.

The dependable Stanley Holloway leads the cast and the town into their small rebellion and you’ll have a big grin on your face throughout. The ubiquitous Margaret Rutherford pops up as the professor. She’s hilarious, but I’m glad it’s a reduced role because she could be overpowering. On the other side at the Government we have the wonderful Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford essentially reprising their double-act from The Lady Vanishes! Remember that one for your pub quizzes.

It’s a stirring film and uplifting when we see Londoner’s banding together to help the little “nation” and great, good hearted fun as they fight back to get water or impose customs checks on the underground. And of course, no-one gets really upset. In fact the final scene features a typical British rainstorm, while at the start it is very untypically hot, almost suggesting the whole thing was caused by a heatwave sending people a bit silly. “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” perhaps?

We do seem to like bureacracy in this country and I can’t think of another film that has so effectively laughed at us and with us at the same time. Still, it’s the sort of story that could easily run out of steam and require awkward contrivances to drag it to a conclusion, so it’s commendable that it never feels like it’s overstretching and in fact the conclusion is rather clever. Oh, I’m sure you could be picky and find some sort of issue with it, but that would be very British and as the film is all about looking past our pedantic nature, it’s far more fun to enter completely and willingly into the spirit of the thing.

Perhaps this was a film to remind the British people who they really were while things like the ration was still going on (“I never thought I’d be glad to see these again”, says Philip Stainton’s kindly copper of the dreaded ration books). It still has that power to do so if modern audiences could allow themselves to watch such old fashioned whimsy. I think they need to watch it really and get some perspective about what’s really important.