The Ladykillers – 1955 | 97mins | Comedy | Colour
The Ladykillers was premiered in the same month that the sale of the Ealing Green Studios to the BBC was announced. It is the blackest of Ealing comedies, excepting Kind Hearts and Coronets. Its central character is a little old lady, played with great taste by Katie Johnson, a familiar performer of little-old lady roles in British films. She lives in a tumbledown Victorian house near St Pancras Station, and takes in as a lodger a strange ‘professor’ with prominent dentures (Alec Guinness in one of his most vivid disguises). He has four odd friends who visit regularly for the purpose, she is told, of playing chamber music. In fact they are plotting a large robbery and intend to use the house as their operation base
The group is nicely contrasted: Danny Green is a moronic heavyweight, Cecil Parker an ex-officer confidence trickster type, Peter Sellers a teddy boy crook, Herbert Lom a ruthless Soho-foreign gangster. Inevitably she finds out what they have been up to, and calmly takes them over as though they are little boys who have misbehaved in the nursery. They plot to kill her, but cannot agree who is to perform the deed; the thieves fall out and each in turn is eliminated, the last felled by the arm of a railway signal as he disposes of the penultimate body. The old lady, finding herself the custodian of a gigantic amount of used bank-notes, goes along to the local police station to report it, but the amiable policeman (Jack Warner), who is used to her fantasies, sends her on her way. The film ends as she walks home, wondering what to do with £60,000 and absent-mindedly dropping a pound note to a pavement artist who has drawn Winston Churchill.
The screenplay was again by William Rose, and the film was shot by Otto Heller in TechniColour, colour films becoming more common in the mid-Fifties, although they were still comparatively rare from Ealing. The art direction by Jim Morahan produced a superb house, a lop-sided villa redolent of Victorian faded gentility, with a portrait of the departed husband of some thirty years on the wall, and a parrot answering to the name of General Gordon, which provides some moments of broad farce, when it escapes and has to be recaptured by the guests. The main comedy is contained in the contrast between crooks and little old ladies, and one of he best scenes is when the men, their guilty secret already rumbled, are forced to take tea with the circle of friends, who include the diminutive Edie Martin, one of whose previous roles was as the boarding-house landlady in The Lavender Hill Mob.
It is a case of little old ladies rule, and an explanation for the triumph of Victorian Great Britain and the Empire. Perhaps the fact that William Rose was an American, and Alexander Mackendrick, although raised in Glasgow, was born in Boston, helped to give them a perspective of England that enabled them to fashion a story which unconsciously contained the crystallisation of the outsiders’ viewpoint. The film is still immensely popular in America, and is given frequent television airings. Its bizarre, almost surreal approach now makes it seem a decade ahead of its time. The Ladykillers was Mackendrick’s last film for Ealing, and when it was completed he left for America.
Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.
Alexander Mackendrick: Director
Jim Morahan: Art Direction
Seth Holt: Associate Producer
Tom Pevsner: Asst Director
Otto Heller: Cinematography
Dock Mathieson: Conductor
Anthony Mendleson: Costume Designer
Jack Harris: Editing
Tristram Cary: Music
Michael Balcon: Producer
William Rose: Script
Stephen Dalby: Sound
Syd Pearson: Special Effects