director Alexander Mackendrick
After watching Alexander Mackendrick’s brilliant The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), I decided to push up his 1955 film The Ladykillers, which had long sat in my film queue. It’s one of those films that tends to make lists of “best British films”, another subset of movies that I’m trying to work my way through. However, the rather painful experience of watching the Coen Brothers’ 2004 American re-make might well have kept this film at bay for some time for me.
It stars Alec Guinness, with a set of false teeth that make him look a bit like Lon Chaney, as the ringleader of a gang of thieves that also include Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom. They take residence in a strange ramshackle old house of an elderly woman in London, who lives with her parrots and cockatiel. They pretend to be a bunch of amateur musicians while they scheme to knock over an armored car at King’s Cross station, using their cover to trick the old lady into their scheme.
Actually, the first half or two-thirds of the film, while good, I found a bit more unsatisfying. There are funny bits and stuff, but it’s a little more ham-fisted that I was expecting. I don’t really have much experience with the Ealing Studios comedies, so I wasn’t sure how I would enjoy it.
But the film turns a corner in the last act, as things start to go awry for the thieves and the little old lady gets wise to them. The thieves start killing one another off, one by one, scheming to escape with the loot and getting rather grim comeuppance. In fact, it goes from a little dark to very black as far as the hue of comedy goes. It’s not just black in the comedy but it’s a rather dark view of humanity all told.
By the end of the film, I did indeed appreciate its standing in the annals of great British films. And I don’t ever want to see the Coen brothers’ version again.