“The Ladykillers” – Die laughing [MOVIE REVIEW]

Alec Guinness, Danny Green, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, and Herbert Lom in Alexander Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS (1955). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal

That classic British comedy of so many layers, “The Ladykillers,” has just been given a 4K restoration and it’s a beauty. The anticipation that comes with seeing an old favorite again is always whether it still holds up. Rest assured, “The Ladykillers” not only holds up but brings with it nuance that was probably missed the first (or second or third) time you saw it. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a real treat.

Nominated for an Academy Award, the script by American William Rose is as close to perfection as a film writer can get. Tropes and types have been put into a cauldron of creativity, stirred, and out comes a tight plot about a heist by an experienced gang of thieves. Too clever for words, the leader of the gang, Professor Marcus — or at least that’s what he’s going by this time — has targeted the perfect hideout in the dilapidated cottage of gentle, old, dotty Mrs. Wilberforce.

As we first meet Mrs. Wilberforce, she is dressed to the nines or what must have been the nines in 1918, all high button shoes, lavender hat, and long skirt with matching jacket. Think of Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins” off to a suffragette rally. Arriving at the local police station, it is obvious that they know her well. She’s there this time to apologize for the report she and a friend filed about a UFO in the neighborhood. Clearly her friend had had a bit too much sherry and they were both very sorry. The bemused and tolerant constabulary graciously send her on her way.

Her next stop is to see if anyone has replied to her “room to let” ad posted at a nearby store. Lo and behold, just after arriving home, almost before removing her gloves and jacket, Professor Marcus arrives. He is in need of a space where he and his friends, an amateur chamber ensemble, can rehearse. Although the rooms at the top of the house were bombed into instability during the war, there are two rooms on a lower floor that she can rent to him.

And about that chamber music ensemble, the members of which arrive shortly thereafter. We have Harry, a dull-eyed Teddy Boy wanna-be, with his chesterfield collar, minor pompadour and long sideburns, always a beat behind; Major Courtney, the dulcet-toned, sophisticated con man there to lend respectability and intelligent support to the professor; One-Round, the thick headed muscle with nary a brain in the small head that tops his massive frame; and Louis, the smooth, suave and most overtly villainous of the group, distrustful of everyone, especially sweet Mrs. Wilberforce, or as One-Round calls her, Mrs. Lopsided. Hearing the lovely refrains of Boccherini, Mrs. Wilberforce knocks to offer tea. The refrains are coming from the record player as the men are huddled planning their robbery and escape. Hurrying into the other room, they take their positions with their instruments as they bid her enter. It’s fleeting but look out for the clueless One-Round trying to play his cello like a violin.

Katie Johnson in Alexander Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS (1955). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/ Studiocanal.

Their plans are clever and should be fool-proof except… Lovely Mrs. Wilberforce, always in her turn of the century finest, is an unknowing accomplice, bringing more danger and hilarious repercussions. I’ll leave it at that so no spoilers are given to those of you who many never have seen this wonderful little fairy tale.

Directed by the slyly subversive Andrew Mackendrick, the film contains elements of satire and slapstick, elegance and vulgarity, innocence and cynicism. “The Ladykillers” was an effective lead-in to his next film, the sardonic “Sweet Smell of Success.” Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound magazine credits Mackendrick and Rose with making “The Ladykillers” a social satire of England and its Labour politics following the war. As Mackendrick himself acknowledged many years later, “’The Ladykillers’ is obviously a parody of Britain in its subsidence.” One need only look at the décor of Mrs. Wilberforce’s lopsided cottage with gilt and chintz and heavily furnished rooms that pay tribute to her heyday long ago when the old Queen died in 1901. Again, it is One-Round who steals the show as he tries to figure out which Queen she’s talking about.

And oh what a cast he assembled. Alec Guinness, who starred for him in the amazing and little known satire called “The Man in the White Suit,” plays Professor Marcus. He is a remarkable anchor to this hodge podge group of miscreants, the brains of the operation who has worked out the scheme to the very last detail except…

Peter Sellers and Danny Green in Alexander Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS (1955). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal.

A very young Peter Sellers plays Harry the dim Teddy Boy with chubby-cheeked innocence that belies his devious, disloyal inner core. Danny Green as One-Round is the soft-hearted “intellectually challenged” bruiser who has the timing necessary to carry off double-take reactions and dumber than dumb statements. It’s easy to imagine him in boxing match after boxing match always knocked out in the first round and always returning for more. He was obviously never gifted with great insight. Cecil Parker as Major Courtney is a fabulous straight man, unable to pivot but always, well almost always, playing above-board. Herbert Lom, known primarily for his role as Peter Sellers’ boss in all the Inspector Clouseau movies, is handsome, menacing, and single minded. His distrust of everyone and everything anchors much of the later action. You can practically see his lip curl as he grouses about everything.

And then there’s Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce. Long a stage actress, this was one of her first film roles outside of numerous minor and uncredited appearances in films of the thirties and forties. Here she is a veritable star, unconsciously upending a dangerous band of desperados, all trying hard to avoid her constant offers of tea in the afternoon. She is a veritable joy.

The cinematography by Otto Heller has greatly benefited from this restoration as his camera pans over a post war London on the verge of modernizing but still stuck in the past. If there is a quibble with this restoration, and it’s a fairly big one, it’s that the sound is not totally synced, playing like dubbing rather than natural speech.

“The Ladykillers” is a classic of comedy and deserves to be seen on the big screen. So go!

Opening July 2 at the Laemmle Royal, Playhouse, and Town Center.



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Written by: Neely Swanson

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