The Ladykillers: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition Review
The Ladykillers is the crowning achievement of Ealing Studios and the quintessential British comedy. It features a beautifully written and devilish screenplay by William Rose which might be, narratively speaking, perfect. Alexander MacKendrick had directed several other fine Ealing classics, including Whisky Galore and The Man in the White Suit. The Ladykillers was his last and at 60 years old, it still isn't showing its age. In fact, it has a cheeky sense of anarchic fun that makes it feel fresh.
It’s a film fascinated by its own wonderful characters; this may be why the Coen’s thought of remaking it as they have often had a similar approach. It’s a shame they didn't just carry on thinking about it instead of doing it as their interpretation was a complete misfire. If The Ladykillers sometimes makes fun of the gang of misfit villains, an indelible sense of charm ensures it is never cruel (despite MacKendrick being in fierce form). The villains are almost pitied that they can’t deal with a sweet little old lady.
The story is that of a caper, a heist planned to meticulous musical perfection by Alec Guinness’ Professor Marcus. He takes up residence as a lodger for eccentric Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) so he and his friends can make their plans whilst posing as a string quartet. They are particularly fond of practising Boccherini's Minuet to Mrs Wilberforce’s delight, though she never notices it is just a record. She also has no idea how instrumental (if you pardon the pun) to their plans she is, but by doing nothing in particular, and certainly not on purpose, she brings a lot of tea and utter chaos to the increasingly bewildered villains.
Alec Guinness is in superb form as the Professor. He is introduced as a shadowy threat, a foreboding silhouette at Mrs Wilberforce’s door (a nod to Hitchcock’s thriller The Lodger). When she allows him in, he towers over her and his measured tone drips with veiled menace. This is not the only time MacKendrick will fashion genre rules to suit and Tristram Cary's brilliant score follows every twist. All is lost on dotty Mrs Wilberforce however. She and her little subsidence-suffering house (a character in itself) unwittingly disarm the Professor immediately. He tries to straighten a picture that isn't hanging level: “Quite impossible to make it hang straight”, he is told. This small annoyance is just the beginning. In his most frustrated moments, there is an ungainly wiry madness to his performance, much of it in his hair! Guinness was a master of disguise and there is huge contrast with the cheerful lisping bank clerk of The Lavender Hill Mob, or the rather unlikeable nerd in The Man in The White Suit. And make no mistake, this is a fluid and consummate performance. Even more so when he shares the screen in the more farcical moments with comedy greats like Peter Sellers.
While the practice is only a cover story, the Professor’s plans are timed with the music nonetheless. Guinness accordingly gives Professor Marcus a rhythm (even with occasional humming), but Mrs Wilberforce has her own and it fits the house perfectly. Guinness was one of Britain’s finest actors, but Katie Johnson is his equal here. Her Mrs Wilberforce is a joy of a character, almost one out of her time and at odds with previous little old Ealing ladies; a whole group of which pop-up as her friends on a visit, yet she is the most reserved and intelligent. In an introduction included in this edition and previous DVDs, Terry Gilliam speaks of how Mrs Wilberforce controls them as she would hens, while they fuss and natter at the gang members! It’s a wonderful scene and Gilliam is an astute choice as a commentator because the more you think of that moment, and the film as a whole, there is more than a hint of Monty Python.
The dark humour, the farcical characters, the outrageous events are shot through with a charm that can only be found in British film. Any violence is far less obvious, more implied, but still it is a precursor to A Fish Called Wanda at least. It’s notable that 1955 was the year Alfred Hitchcock made his first colour film, The Trouble With Harry. A macabre story, but nevertheless it has the same playful regard for twisting genre. And as Hitchcock would have surely done, MacKendrick shows an appetite for almost gratuitous pleasure in punishing the gang. In that regard, Ealing has form, but even so this feels like a step-up. It has more bite.
Where before there was a certain cosiness to Ealing comedies, here there is confidence, particularly in the chase sequence around the robbery. Just compare it with a similar sequence in The Lavender Hill Mob; there was fascination that the mild-mannered banker could pull off such a plan, hence a farcical nature, but even so, MacKendrick shows some audacious grit in the race around London’s streets this time.
That said, and despite how strong London features, around Katie Johnson the mise en scene creates a melancholic sense that she exists in a bubble, a music box even given the use of a tune called The Last Rose of Summer during the opening and closing of the story. The history of song might give you a new perspective on the film altogether.
Mrs Wilberforce lives alone -but for her beloved parrots- in the little house that feels separate to even its immediate surroundings. She has busy London on her doorstep, a railway behind her, and a predictable routine including bothering patient Jack Warner’s coppers at the police station. All of these elements combine to somehow shield her, which the genius of the narrative plays up to. Perhaps the funniest sequence is the gang’s attempt to leave the house with the loot hidden in their instrument cases. The house is refusing to let them leave! Note the Professor’s scarf getting stuck in the door even before One Round loses all his cash right under Mrs Wilberforce’s bemused nose.
American director (Sweet Smell of Success) Alexander MacKendrick’s mantra would appear to be laugh or you’ll cry! And combined with his consummate grasp of genre, his view of the British is one of the major factors in his success at Ealing. His characters are affectionately honest and the humour comes from where they clash. Literally so in the sequence of Mrs Wilberforce causing havoc with pre-Carry On’s Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor. That scene is criticised by both Terence Davies and Philip Kemp in the features, but it still demonstrates the point in hilarious fashion. Perhaps though it does herald the shift in style to the more blunt Carry On humour that was to come.
As light and fun as it is, MacKendrick demonstrates tight control over every element. Is chintz-noir a valid sub-genre? Probably not, but it seems the best way to summarise the unique quality he brings. The balance between genre, theme and narrative is extraordinary, yet with a sense that this is how it should be. And that the result resembles a Warner Brothers cartoon gives it a timeless quality.
That mood is confirmed by the gang, a mix of actors including those with a comedy or thriller past. Louie is the most valid threat, Herbert Lom with an ice-cool demeanour (but even he is rattled and “can’t stand little old ladies”). Major Courtney the least devious, understandable seeing as nice British film stalwart Cecil Parker plays him. Peter Sellers needs no introduction and he is brilliantly funny in that bone-dry way of his. Danny Green though, with the wonderfully suggestive name One Round is the key to capturing the riotous unpredictable nature of a cartoon. He is a slow-witted gentle giant, calling Mrs Wilberforce “mum”, but later, a force of nature, tearing a fence apart like paper. Out of all of them, he epitomises the film by being the most honest. Yes, he’s a villain with sledgehammer fists, but you might as well ask him to murder his own mother than touch a hair on the head of his “Mrs Lopsided”.
The resolution of the story is absurd and brilliantly executed. For film nerds, the narrative structure is something to admire, a particularly neat example of Todorov’s theory of equilibrium. But as with a more modern example in Cold In July, it's so much fun as well. That you can see clearly where the film is engineered just amplifies how good it is and it stands up to multiple viewings.
The Ladykillers comes from a time where the public would enthusiastically embrace the neighbourhood villain as someone resisting the establishment. And the safety net here was that the romance of pulling off an exciting caper or blag could be diffused by reminding them of just how disappointed their mums would be.
There seems to be something new to discover every time you watch this wonderful film and it never ceases to impress. The 60th Anniversary Collector’s edition is a comprehensive release. The Blu-Ray is the same as the previous bare-bones edition and some of the extras have come from previous releases too, but having it all in one place makes it a worthy upgrade. Some of the new material, especially Philip Kemp’s commentary, make it essential.
The Ladykillers is presented on blu-ray for the second time from Studio Canal. The print appears to be the same as the previous release, which was already the restored version. The result is stunning however. While its age cannot be disguised (nor should it be), Otto Heller’s cinematography is a perfect partner to the story. Colours stand out like shadows would in Film Noir; the gang in dark contrast with the faded and dated primary colours of the little house. The real benefit of the format comes into its own in the external scenes. London looks wonderful, colours pop and cars shine. Note the detail when Frankie Howerd’s grocery stall is being destroyed by a horse. And Mrs Wilberforce herself is a little constant blob of light while chaos ensues around her. Brightness appears to be a little high in some moments, but in fact, the depth and contrast in the colours suggest this is by design.
Introduction from Terry Gilliam - This is from the original DVD set, but a welcome addition. It's apt for a member of Monty Python to recognise the British eccentricity that Alexander MacKendrick exploited. And it’s easy to see where the team may have been influenced.
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Philip Kemp - This may be the cream of the extra features. Philip is an excellent companion to the film and imparts a wealth of knowledge about not only The Ladykillers and its cast and crew, but also the British film industry of the time. And it was interesting to hear that William Rose literally dreamt the plot, but almost didn't make it with Alexander MacKendrick as they had fallen out. He’s full of cheerful interpretation and anecdotes such as that, so it’s an entertaining and educational listen.
Forever Ealing - 49.37m - Fascinating documentary narrated by Daniel Day Lewis covering the history of the famous studio. This too was included with a previous DVD set and it's good to see it included in this comprehensive release.
Interview with Screenwriter and Producer Allan Scott - 10.30m - gives insight into all sorts of aspects of the film, particularly MacKendrick and his heritage, the comedy of the film and its mise en scene.
Interview with Director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) - 13.49m - That the unsung hero of British cinema would be so influenced by both director and the film is not surprising! But he knew Alexander MacKendrick as a teacher. He speaks of the colour, depth and texture of the film, and considers that its theme is about failure and class, or both.
Interview with Screenwriter Ronald Harwood - 7.15m - Like Davies, Harwood brings a personal view. He saw MacKendrick as an artist, enlightened as an outsider who communicated through images.
Locations - 9.27m - This is great fun. The film is striking for its use of real locations around King’s Cross. The house aside, Mrs Wilberforce's view of the street is the same today.
Audio interview with Tom Pevsner, assistant director on The Ladykillers - 1h 31m - At over 90 minutes, this is a thorough interview. Tom has since passed away so this serves as a fitting tribute. He clearly appreciated being able to reminisce. It’s a slow, but fascinating listen, insightful and detailed.
Audio interview with cinematographer David Peers - 1h 32m - Another engrossing audio-only interview, again over 90 minutes. David was a unit production manager on The Ladykillers and discusses his life and career. As with Tom’s interview, it’s a long listen, but just as detailed.
Cleaning up The Ladykillers - 6.07m - A simple set of comparison shots showing painstaking removal of grit and scratches.
Stills Gallery - Often a stills gallery seems to be little more than scenes from the film, but this is a really good set of good quality behind the scenes shots.
Trailer - A typically old fashioned trailer that tells you way too much! Still it picks up on some of the fluid comedy, so it's a welcome curiosity to see after the film.
You can order The Ladykillers 60th Anniversary Blu-ray from one of these retailers...
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