The Ladykillers Review
This is an extract from a review of the sixteen-disc Ealing Collection set. The full review will be posted shortly.
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 Ladykillers has, in comparison to most other Ealing releases from Optimum, a treasure trove of special features in its offering a Photo Gallery and a Trailer (2m30s).