The Definitive Ealing Studios Collection: Part 2 Review
Following on from the review this morning of Dead Of Night, Passport To Pimlico and Kind Hearts And Coronets, it now continues with The Man In The White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers.
The Man In The White Suit
If Passport To Pimlico enjoyed the David-and-Goliath of pitting the population of a small London borough against the British government, The Man In The White Suit comes up with an even more inventive and absurdly lopsided fight, that of a lone inventor against science, big industry, the unions and, perhaps most unfairly, his own friends. Alec Guinness returns to Ealing for the film, playing Sidney Stratton, a lowly employee at a Northern mill who comes upon something that he believes will forever change the industrial heartland of England. At first, this is noticeable only by the scattering of pipettes, glass jars and Bunsen burners in the labs, any knowledge of which is denied by Stratton's colleagues but the daughter of owner Michael Corland (Michael Gough), Daphne (Joan Greenwood), has her interest piqued by the various contraptions and resolves to find out more. That her father intends marrying her off to his rival, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) may have something to do with the glimmer of possibility that she sees in Stratton's clutter.
Unfortunately, her father doesn't agree and fires Stratton, whereupon he's picked up by Birnley and befriends Bertha (Vida Hope) and her more militant members of the employee's union. Daphne doesn't give up on him and when Birnley also throws him out, she finances a lab for Stratton to continue his work. In time, after many explosions, shattered glass and splintered workbenches, Stratton emerges with the fruits of his endeavour, a glowing-white material that never gets dirty, never torn and will last forever. It will, as he well knows, a brilliant invention but one that the mill-owners recognise as being too brilliant and if word spreads about it, they will go out of business. Unfortunately, as Bertha and her friends realise, if the mills go out of business, so they will lose their jobs and with but the one friend - Daphne remains supportive of him - Stratton finds himself on the run both from business and from the unions
Perhaps, it's lacking, when comparing it to Kind Hearts And Coronets, in moments that make one laugh out loud but The Man In The White Suit is an expert blend of conspiracy, comedy and terror as the world, such as it is in a Northern town, closes in on Sidney Stratton. It all begins mildly enough, with Stratton pottering about in various laboratories, not quite getting anywhere but talking a good story. However, with his moments of invention striking the occasional note of slapstick, he emerges from his lab wearing a brilliant white suit and his enemies take up arms, as well as his imprisonment against him. That the sun sets in time with Stratton's emerging from the labs is a visual clue to the terrors that await him as he makes his invention public. Alec Guinness is superb as Stratton and his performance, which veers between wonderment and fear, particularly as he engineers an escape, first from the mill-owners and then from the unions, and runs off into the back streets and industrial landscapes of this Northern English town. In the poor light and pursued by a gang bearing whatever weapons come to hand, Stratton's glowing white suit makes him easy to spot. The moment in which he's cornered and attacked, his apparently indestructible suit torn to shreds, is terrifying, the look of shock on his face containing notes of disappointment, of fear, of being misunderstood and of being very alone. However, perhaps the finest moment in The Man In The White Suit also belongs to Stratton as, his suit torn to shreds, he resolves to try again. Endlessly optimistic, it's a fitting final gesture in a film with an oddly pessimistic view of British life but one that Ealing, in the midst of the gentle comedy, had a right to call their own.
The Lavender Hill Mob
If the finest film in this set, Kind Hearts And Coronets, begins with a man recalling his adventures in murder, so The Lavender Hill Mob opens with Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) in discussion with another about his time as a master criminal in London, albeit one with just the one job in mind. As the film heads back in time to London and Holland's planning of the job, we learn that he begins the film as a lowly employee of the Bank Of England and one who, with his unassuming nature, has been passed over for many a promotion. Without ever being rewarded for his many years of service, Holland decides, not on a whim but from hundreds of trips across the capital gazing at the palette of gold before him, to steal one million pounds of bullion. With the help of a sculptor Alfred Pendelbury (Stanley Holloway) and a couple of cockney thieves Lackery Wood and Shorty Fisher (Sid James and Alfie Bass, respectively), Holland hatches a brilliant plan. Firstly, they will, with the distraction of some bike-riding and street-painting, steal the gold, melt it down into souvenir Eiffel Towers and export it out of the country, where he and the rest of the gang will meet it in Paris. But a mix-up over a real shipment of souvenirs causes confusion and Holland's brilliant plan begins to fall apart. As his tale continues, the Lavender Hill mob chase the gold but appear doomed to fail.
Something of a companion piece to The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob is, however, a much gentler film indeed. But in spite of sharing much - Alec Guinness in the lead role, the placing of the story against a major heist and the plotting of the criminals within a boarding house run by a dear old woman - The Lavender Hill Mob is bright and breezy next to The Ladykillers' more sinister moments. It is also a film to enjoy despite being, in the company it keeps in this set, a very slight film with its small amount of social commentary kept at an arm's length and its crime drama being a blundering one, less concerned with murder than simply getting away with it. The much better The Ladykillers would limit such bumbling to a horse, a fruit'n'veg stall and Frankie Howerd but here, it takes up a good deal of the film. However,
The Lavender Hill Mob does contain a very fine performance from Alec Guinness - he was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Gary Cooper for High Noon - albeit with less of the grandstanding that accompanied Kind Hearts And Coronets and The Man In The White Suit. Here, he's given a dull name, walks quietly through the film and even gazes upon the machinations of his criminal life with a look that might be described as passive. Even as he relaxes in a foreign hideaway, or so we're led to believe, he brings with him the dreary sound of the Clapham Junction tannoy and above his head one can imagine there being a little grey rain cloud amidst the blue skies of Spain, Morroco, Brazil or wherever it is that he has chosen to cease his flight. Whilst drawing attention to himself, albeit in the most understated way possible, he also gives the rest of the cast ample room to shine, particularly Alfie Bass and Sid James and there are some delightful cameos in the moments in which the film stops to draw breath. Perhaps not one of Ealing's finest, it is still a marvellous counterpoint to the more serious crime drama of The Blue Lamp. Although it is instructive that its setting and its better moments would make a slight return in The Ladykillers, the last film to be reviewed in this set.
In the last house at the end of a cul-de-sac lives a dear old lady, Mrs. Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), who troubles the local constabulary with her tales of criminals, of stick-ups and of spaceships in the back gardens of her friends. Laughing cheerfully, they don't believe a word of it and bid her a fond farewell as she leaves the station, taking the walk through the town on her way back to a home that overlooks the railways. But on one particular day, she's followed by a sinister figure, who walks a short distance behind her. On entering her house, the shadow of this same figure is cast on the windows of her home and as her parrots squawk, the doorbell rings and in steps Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) expressing an interest in the room that she has to let.
A music professor by trade, or at least that is what he tells an overjoyed Mrs Wilberforce, Marcus informs her that he will be joined by the rest of the string quintet shortly and they will all take up residence in her house. Simply delighted to have music playing in her home, she welcomes Maj. Courteney (Cecil Parker), Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom), Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers) and punch drunk One-Round (Danny Green) and enjoys sitting amongst her memories in her living room listening to the music that seeps through the ceiling above. But what Mrs Wilberforce doesn't know is that the music she so loves is playing on a gramophone, disguising the heist that Professor Marcus is planning for the coming days. And what would most shock Mrs Wilberforce if she knew is that she will play a part in the crime, one that will implicate her wholly and for which she would hang were she ever to tell the police about it...
There isn't very much to complain about in The Ladykillers. It contains a performance by Alec Guinness that is simply terrific, suggesting that the part of Professor Marcus was originally destined for Alistair Sim but sees Guinness doing his very best to portray Sim in the part, being not only droll and very funny but blackly comic and sinister. He's surrounded by a group of accomplished actors with a pre-Pink Panther Sellers and Lom playing against type as a couple of hoods, one playing down the exaggerated comedy that he tends to bring to parts whilst the other draws out a psychosis that will be difficult to imagine for anyone raised with his frustrated ranting at Closeau. But what works best is how these criminals are confronted by a world of gentility, which includes afternoon tea, whistling on the way to work and the friendly bobby wishing everyone a good morning. As their heist is threatened with failure and they decide to rid themselves and the world of Mrs Wilberforce, what good there is in their nature comes to the fore and they bicker amongst themselves as to who ought to kill her. Indeed, they would rather turn on each other than harm the little old lady, with the convenience of the railway tracks proving tempting as regards disposing of bodies.
What this leaves us with is a film that is not only strong on character - even Frankie Howerd has a memorable part and he's on the screen less than five minutes - but is also genuinely funny. The finale about the train tracks with shots being fired and bodies dropping from the bridge that overlooks the railway yard is a breathless run of slapstick and comic invention, the final closing of a signal able to bring tears to the eyes of this viewer. However, The Ladykillers is simply awash with such moments, with a highlight being Professor Marcus and his gang entertaining, at Mrs Wilberforce's request, a group of her dearest friends. The sight of Marcus hunched over a piano whilst Sellers, Lom and Green serve tea to a group of bustling old women is one that, for all of the right reasons, will live long in one's memory. Given how the name Ealing still commands respect some forty-to-fifty years after these films were made, so too do these films. I suspect that in another forty years, they'll still be spoken of as classic British comedies. Perhaps the misfortune is that so very little, with the exception of Monty Python and Withnail and I, has come along to challenge them in that regard.
When reviewing Optimum's two-disc release of Whisky Galore!, I wrote, "[it] is a glorious-looking film on this DVD, with an almost perfect transfer from Optimum. Noise is almost non-existent and the contrast in the picture is simply beautiful, with a very complementary sharpness to the image. It's a DVD like this that make you wonder if the move to colour was an altogether wise idea so well does the story, production and look of the film work in combination with one another." That's not strictly the case with these six discs although the very last statement is confirmed given how the five black-and-white films supplied look a good deal better than the colour The Ladykillers.
However, they don't look at all bad. Kind Hearts And Coronets probably looks the best and, given that I would imagine that Optimum have used the transfer of Whisky Galore from their earlier release, it will look equally good. However, Passport To Pimlico is disappointingly soft, perhaps in an attempt to disguise the condition of the print but which leaves it looking much less impressive than any of the other films in the set. Then again, none of the films have been restored particularly thoroughly with all of them, even Kind Hearts And Coronets, showing some obvious print damage. It's also worth saying, not that I mind though, that there's a fair amount of noise in the prints used, although it does look more as though it was present in the original prints than was generated through the transfer.
None of them have been gifted with the kind of transfer that Warner Brothers, for example, carry out with ease but they could have looked much, much worse. Except, that is, for The Ladykillers, which comes along looking like 'before' presentation in one of Warner's features on the restoration work that they carry out on the movies in their archives. With the colours not quite matching, objects have a soft halo about them and though the colours are perhaps too rich to look anything like real life, they do tend to look quite unbelievable. The effect is akin, though obviously not quite as extreme, to watching a 3D film without the glasses, with it looking much like the old release of The Wizard Of Oz than the restored two- or three-disc version. Though still watchable, it could have been so much better.
Given the age of each film, it won't be a surprise to learn that each film comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, all of which aren't bad but do feature the occasional pop, click and bit of hissing. However, as one who doesn't object to the odd fault such as those, I thought them fine. In particular, there's a warmth about them, particularly Dead Of Night and Kind Hearts And Coronets, that's quite pleasing. The major oversight, given that these are Optimum releases, is that they do not come with subtitles.
The six discs that I have for review come with rather a meagre selection of extras. Four of the films come with nothing whilst Kind Hearts And Coronets only offers a Trailer (2m51s). The Ladykillers has, in comparison, a treasure trove of special features in its offering a Photo Gallery and a Trailer (2m30s).
Actually, what I said about Ealing in this review's opening paragraphs isn't strictly true. As something of a fan of creaky old horror movies, I've been watching Dead Of Night for many a year and as a confirmed whisky drinker, I had seen Whisky Galore! a few times before Optimum released it last year. However, beyond that it's quite accurate, leaving me avoiding, for most of my life, such films as Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Man In The White Suit. Being honest and, contrary to the rest of these reviews, very brief, I wish that I hadn't waited as long as I did to watch them. Life would have been so much richer for not doing so.
As a final note, though, this sixteen-disc set is available from most retailers but each disc has been released individually. If you wish to buy them as such through our affiliated links, please use the individual reviews as listed to the left of this review, all of which offer excerpts from this piece.