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  • Post last modified:May 21, 2022

Ladykillers: Criminally Fun


Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. Photo: Ealing Studios

A recent Bluray release of this classic comedy features a documentary about the history of the Ealing Studios where former stars and collaborators talk about how it felt like being part of a family. During its most celebrated years, Ealing produced great dramas, and they still do; the modern version of the studio made The Imitation Game in 2014. But we tend to think of comedies when we hear the name Ealing and most of us would likely agree that the greatest of them is The Ladykillers

Moving in with a widow
Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) has been scouting locations and now he’s found the perfect place for himself and his amateur string quintet – the home of Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), an eccentric old widow who lives with her parrots in a ”lopsided” house near a railway tunnel in Kings Cross. She agrees to let the professor rent rooms in her house. The fact that his friends in the quintet will drop by occasionally to play with him is not a problem for a music lover like Mrs. Wilberforce. 

What she doesn’t know is that Marcus and his friends are hardened criminals. While they’re upstairs playing a recording of Boccherini’s most famous minuet, they are in fact planning to rob a security van – and Mrs. Wilberforce will unknowingly be a part of the scheme.

Written and directed by two Americans
One of the most British comedies you can imagine was in fact written and directed by two Americans. In Alexander Mackendrick’s case, the director was in 1955 Ealing’s most accomplished filmmaker, having made popular movies in Britain for almost a decade. William Rose had been stationed during the war in Europe and chose to live in Britain afterwards, writing many scripts. They had made The Maggie together for Ealing the previous year, but The Ladykillers became something special. 

The script offers surprises along the way as it keeps getting darker and a game evolves between the lady and the gang.

Rose claimed to have dreamt the story and it certainly is a wonderfully dark gem. The first scenes introducing Mrs. Wilberforce as she strolls to the local police station to report recent observations about her neighbors, humored by the cops who clearly believe that approach is the fastest way to get rid of her, are funny and sweet. Johnson finds the right way to portray her dotty character that makes us love her instantly. Mrs. Wilberforce may look like a frail creature, but she has a very strong, almost intimidating streak that becomes a hilarious and very important part of her relationship with Marcus’s gang. They are tough men, but deeply unsure of how to handle the lady. They consider the possibility of having her killed if it comes to that, but the gang is conflicted – and Mrs. Wilberforce turns out to have them by the balls on more than one occasion. The script offers surprises along the way as it keeps getting darker and a game evolves between the lady and the gang (and then among the robbers themselves), but it’s also rich with laughter, helped by a brilliant cast. Johnson has the role of a lifetime, but Guinness is also hilarious (in false teeth) as the group’s mastermind. 

It’s also very interesting to see Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, the future Clouseau and Dreyfus, in small roles that are very different from the iconic figures they created a decade later. The whole gang is an amazing bunch of caricatures, very ill-fitting and unconvincing as anything else but criminals, but that’s part of the joke. 

Shot in North London, the film offers quaint, charming and soot-stained locations that are an essential ingredient throughout. One reason why it is so entertaining is how carefully (and varied) Mackendrick and his collaborators planned each setup for these environs. Chaos, slapstick and killer irony follows.

The Ladykillers 1955-U.K. 90 min. Color. Produced by Michael Balcon. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Screenplay: William Rose. Cast: Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Katie Johnson (Louisa Wilberforce), Cecil Parker (Claude Courtney), Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green.

Trivia: Richard Attenborough was reportedly considered for a role. Remade in the U.S. as The Ladykillers (2004). Later a stage play.

BAFTA: Best Actress (Johnson), Screenplay.

Last word: “Dwarfed by the grim landscape of railway yards and screaming express trains, [Mrs. Wilberforce’s house] is Edwardian England, an anachronism in the contemporary world. Bill Rose’s sentimental hope for the country that he and I saw through fond but sceptical eyes was that it might still, against all logic, survive its enemies. A theme, a message of sorts, one that I felt very attached to. But one that it took quite some time for me to consciously recognise and appreciate.” (Mackendrick, Cineaste)

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