Alexander Mackendrick’s ghoulish black comedy, with the emphasis on ghoulish, as five crooks pull off a daring robbery, a key component in the success of their plan being the co-opting of a dear, sweet, oblivious little old lady. Unfortunately for them, she turns out to be the Terminator. Obviously, if The Ladykillers were a modern take – of the sort John Hughes’ might have fashioned, perhaps – she would be delivering literal blows, Home Alone style (the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake has its moments, but it fails to come up with a distinctive reason for existing, aside from transatlantic relocation with concomitant uncharacteristic crudity). But Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) rather comes armed with saintly intransigence, puncturing their best-laid plans at every turn.
The film represented something of a zenith for Mackendrick, certainly in critics’ eyes. If anything, his subsequent The Sweet Smell of Success was equally lauded, but it triggered an unspooling of professional relationships that led to his marginalisation – he fell off first The Devil’s Disciple, and then The Guns of Navarone – and retreat into teaching the art instead. The Man in the White Suit is probably my favourite – made during an Ealing stint that also included the celebrated Whisky Galore! and The Maggie – and is both sublimely simple yet dazzling effective in its critique of supply-and-demand economics. There’s a strongly political streak in his pictures, but that of the cynic rather than the proselytiser. Which may be why an interpretation of The Ladykillers referenced in Paul Taylor’s Time Out review – Charles Barr’s reading of the gang as representing the first post-war Labour government! – doesn’t seem entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.
Indeed, The Ladykillers, while touted as a comedy foremost, isn’t that funny. In the gentler, typically Ealing sense or in terms of belly-laughs, at any rate. It’s populated by finely sketched comic grotesques, while the situations are tilted towards the absurd and excruciating, but the back half of the picture is really more about suspense; watching the 4K restoration in a cinema about six weeks ago, it was notable how few audible laughs were elicited. It’s a funny film, but it isn’t really about slapstick or mugging, even if the signature disposal of the gang’s bodies into railcars raises a twisted chuckle or two. There’s a symmetry to their efficient removal from the scene that matches the robbery itself.
Twisted also describes the bizarre shot of Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) from behind, as Louis (Herbert Lom) expects him to continue turning, revealing… It feels like a premonition of the madness to come, reaching the point at which Marcus begins laughing unnervingly as he tells Louis – now the only other surviving gang member – that there is no beating the old lady.
Harry: Look what she done to that barrow boy and the cabbie and the junkman. All of them out of business in ten minutes.
Since The Ladykillers lives or dies on the interaction of its characters, the casting has to be perfect, and it is. Johnson was 76 at the time, and the producers initially objected to her as too old and frail (she won a BAFTA and was suddenly in demand but died two years later). However, in classic “looks can be deceptive” style, there’s never any doubt about her formidable nature once the gloves are off. As spiv Harry (Peter Sellers) points out, her righteous meddling has already succeeded in destroying three businesses earlier that day (Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor both appear in this sequence, in their pre-Carry On… innocence). She’d certainly have been a deadly go-to resource for the Great Reset’s goal of eliminating small businesses. The conclusion, in which the patronising plod assume she’s a senile old dear fantasising a robbery (despite her on-point prior analysis of an alien “visitation”), is entirely perfect in terms of the picture’s running theme of underestimating her.
As for Guinness’ cadaverous overplaying, he’s so closely based on Alastair Sim, I always wondered why Ealing didn’t just cast the real deal; the part was, apparently intended for Sim, so who knows why it didn’t pan out (perhaps crucially, there’s a warmth to Sim that Guinness, in his portrayal of Marcus’ creeping insincerity, conspicuously lacks). Pauline Kael was of the view that Guinness is “almost done in by great, hideous teeth – so enormous they give him master criminal status”. But as inimitable presences as the other actors playing the gang members are, there’s never any doubt who his holding court here. This is nicely summarised by the scene in which Mrs Wilberforce’s bird escapes, leading to various of the crew climbing onto the roof in pursuit. Marcus returns from an errand, and the bird flutters down and perches obediently on his hand as he looks up at the disarray his associates are causing.
Sellers apparently voiced the birds. He was in awe of Guinness; it was the comedy actor’s first major screen role, and it’s curious to see him playing so “straight”. He’d auditioned for One-Round (Richard Attenborough was considered for Harry, although he’d be getting more than his share of criminal types around this time, what with Private’s Progress, I’m Alright Jack and The League of Gentlemen). One sees Sellers here and rather recalls John Lennon in his “fat phase”, but most striking is that he’s playing someone relatively normal; later, he’d steer as far as possible from such revealing roles.
This was also the first blush of tapping Herbert Lom’s comedic potential on the big screen, most famously culminating in a series of turns as Chief Inspector Dreyfus (for which he reunited with Sellers, of course). He’s essentially your tough-nut gangster heavy here, but leavened by squeamishness over killing old ladies and alarm at his complete lack of control over the unravelling situation. Cecil Parker had easily the most impressive list of credits outside of Guinness, and his nervy Major Courtney is the most affable of the gang. Which is probably why he is also the first to go. Then there’s One-Round, Danny Green making an imposing impression in his only widely-known role.
Also of note: Jack Warner may be referencing George Dixon, albeit somewhat promoted, as the kindly superintendent (Dixon first appeared in 1950’s The Blue Lamp, but the character crossed to TV in the same year The Ladykillers was released). The manner in which Luigi Boccherini’s minuet from Quintet in E major, Opus 11, Number 5 recurs becomes a signature in itself, a signal of the gang’s deceit yet meeting with the peaceable approval of Mrs Wilberforce (for whom it recalls heady days in Pangbourne).
Professor Marcus: It was a great plan, except for the Human Element.
The decaying terraces, between which the little old lady’s home is squashed – the exterior of her house was a location set – are striking. Mrs Wilberforce’s existence is encroached upon by the “advances” of industrialisation, yet she refuses to be anything other than she always has been. She should be able to buy a new gaffe with her loot, but one wonders if she’d want to. Sadly, the film arrived right at the end of the Ealing comedy cycle, with the studios sold to the BBC the same year and a few forgettable pictures still to come. Perhaps that balance in The Ladykillers, between the aspirational purity of the earlier Ealing comedies and the brutality of the real world, is symptomatic of where the studio stood in the larger scheme of things.