Friday, 13 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 61: The Ladykillers (1955)

Watching this again, I couldn’t help wondering: is The Ladykillers Ealing’s most famous film? In academic circles, it is probably one of the most cited – with debates ranging over what aspect of British society it is satirising, what larger contemporary issues it might be addressing, or simply hailing the directorial work of Alexander Mackendrick – and, in popular circles, it ranks alongside the other Alec Guinness comedies Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Ealing dramas The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Cruel Sea (1953). In the last decade, a case for The Ladykillers as the most well known Ealing film has only increased, with the unfortunate Tom Hanks-Coen Brothers remake in 2004 and the recent theatrical adaptation by Graham Linehan. At some level, it may be that this simple tale of five crooks and the little old lady who is unwittingly drawn into their robbery, is what people think of when it comes to Ealing Studios.

As a film, The Ladykillers confirms and challenges much of the ‘Ealing-esque’ character identified in several of these blog posts: conformity and community are here, black comedy is woven throughout, ensemble cast performance is crucial, location filming is crucial to the setting and narrative and there is a moral dimension to the denouement. Yet, again in common with some of the Ealing films, it can also be frustratingly abrupt and incoherent: Professor Marcus’ (Alec Guinness) descent into madness is signposted at several occasions, but his abrupt switch from controlled venom to outright homicide in the final moments can feel contrived; while the different performance styles do threaten to undermine the film (not least Frankie Howerd’s barrow boy, a moment that feels badly improvised, incoherent and overplayed by director and cast).

That the film still works is, in part, due to that collision of styles and ideas: Guinness’ gothic and twisted (mentally and physically) Professor may be the most mannered performance, but it works because it bounces off solid work from the rest of the gang of crooks: Claude / Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), Harry / Mr Robinson (Peter Sellers) and One Round / Mr Lawson (Danny Green). The fifth member, Louis / Mr Harvey (Herbert Lom), is different again: not full of twitchy movement and vocal tricks like Guinness, but an affectionate homage to American gangster types, stiff and unyielding, sardonic and aloof, always with one eye on the money and the door. And set against them all is Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), fussy and dotty and not remotely endearing, remnant of a lost age in so many ways (her house, adrift at the end of the street; her memories of Queen Victoria dying; her belief in what’s morally right). The collision of these six performances and these six characters – and arguably, the seventh, the lopsided house they inhabit for much of the film – coheres even when individual moments feel uncertain.

It also doesn’t hurt that the film looks fantastic, with Mackendrick and director of photography Otto Heller creating an off-kilter world that is one step removed from our own. The film plays with colour, offering garish purple-blues colours when Guinness first appears (and then, later, in the night-time scenes as the gang plan to kill Mrs W), and emphasising communication technologies of phone boxes and trains with splashes of red. This is a world similar to our own, but separate – much like Mrs Wilberforce herself. Barr describes the film as containing a small village atmosphere, but that village arguably owes as much to horror traditions as it does to Ealing community, with the Wilberforce house a misshapen castle out of time and out of place at the end of its long narrow cul-de-sac, a potential monstrous location best avoided. Although she may think she is, Mrs Wilberforce is never at the centre of this community – the film depicts her as much of an intruder into these social spaces as the gang, distracting the police (who are politely dismissive of everything she says, with Jack Warner notably playing up to – and satirising – his reliable police presence as the superintendent who ushers her quickly back out into the street) and causing chaos in the streets. Mrs W may be the closest the film comes to a moral centre, but the film encourages audiences to see that morality as skewed and uncertain as the gang’s criminal perspective.

Despite all this playful and blackly comic misdirection, The Ladykillers still works as a broader comedy: the film never misses an opportunity to stress their childish behaviour (fighting and climbing over each other to get into a phone box) and the slapstick of the gang’s inept failure to capture a parrot presages their incompetence when it comes to killing Mrs W. Performances capture small comic touches that bring the characters to life: Lom handling his violin case like it contains a machine gun (and holding his violin like he’s about to clobber someone with it); Guinness’ impatient tug at his scarf every time Mrs W treads on it; Sellers’ unhappy expression when faced with killing Mrs W; Green hopping around the room, legs wedged in a broken chair; Parker, bouncing off the walls of a phone box as Mrs W seems set to undermine their plans. Different comic styles, modes of performance, and narrative elements all collide in The Ladykillers and, often despite themselves, create a film that remains compelling and enjoyable.

[The Ladykillers is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See for more details]

Next time, we head back to Australia for Ealing's final film, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)...

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