The Lavender Hill Mob: 60th Anniversary Edition Review
Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) tells his story in a restaurant in Rio. A mild-mannered bank clerk working in a London gold bullion office, he has long dreamed of riches. He hatches a plan to rob the bank and smuggle the gold out of the country melted down into Eiffel Tower models. He joins forces with sculptor Alfred Pendebury (Stanley Holloway) and later two professional criminals, Lackery (Sidney James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass). The heist goes well but that's not the end of the story...
When we think of Ealing Studios, somehow The Lavender Hill Mob is one of the films most central to it. It's a comedy, but not so atypically black as Kind Hearts and Coronets say. Nor is it as subversive as I suggest Went the Day Well?, very much not a comedy, is. But I'd suggest that it's just as subversive in its own way: it's a crime film where we are not only on the side of the criminals but rooting for them to get away with it. And as no-one is physically hurt by the crime, it's a crime film on the side of the criminals that has always carried a suitable-for-all U certificate. Okay, maybe some people's bank balances are hurt, but they're fat-cat bankers and who cares about them? The Lavender Hill Mob was made in an austerity-hit Britain which was still recovering from a war it was wondering if it had actually won and which was still being rationed. (Notice how both male leads, while in full-time employment, don't own their own homes.) And sixty years later, at a time when bankers are not exactly the flavour of the month, the film seems still quite timely. At the risk of a possible spoiler, only a blink-and-miss-it shot at the end of the film is presumably there to appease the Production Code Administration.
Alec Guinness gives a fine, unshowy performance as the mild-mannered bank clerk who discovers his inner criminal. He clearly enjoys it, adopting the nickname “Dutch” There's a telling scene where he's called “Boss” for the first time and he sits back with a satisfied smile on his face and says, “Why, yes I am.” The worm has turned, and for many Britons working under despised bosses that's the moment when they were fully on his side. It's a little unfair to Stanley Holloway to describe him as a great foil to Guinness, but that's what he is and the actor does his job admirably. Sid(ney) James had a Gene Hackman-like ability to look middle-aged when he was still quite young - thirty-seven when he made this - and he was mostly cast as either the rough diamond - even playing a character called Ruff-Diamond in Carry on Up the Khyber - or the dirty old man, or both at once. In short, James always played a variation on the same basic persona, but that's always watchable and is so here. The same goes for another longstanding character comic, Alfie Bass. One of the reason the film works is the chemistry between the four leads. Further down the cast is perennial little old lady Edie Martin (with whom I have a family connection) and, very early in her career, Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene. Also on screen, though uncredited, are such familiar faces as Arthur Mullard and Richard Wallis, and, in his film debut, Robert Shaw. One source (okay, Wikipedia) says that future Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton is in this film. If that's true, she's presumably one of the schoolgirls as she was thirteen when this was made.
Thomas Edward Bennett Clarke, bylined with his initials and known as Tibby to his friends, had a Cambridge law degree and began as a journalist and novelist before working as a screenwriter at Ealing. His name is on original screenplays such as those of Hue and Cry (1947) and Passport to Pimlico (1949), and, in more serious mode, The Blue Lamp (1950). He won an Oscar for his Lavender Hill Mob script, and you can see why: it's a model of story construction with a telling attention to detail: this is a film whose plot hinges on the fact that the French and the English have different names for the letters of the alphabet. He also did his research, actually asking a bank manager how he would go about robbing it. The manager told him – no doubt that was a more trusting age.
Charles Crichton began in documentary and was an editor before becoming a director with 1944's For Those in Peril, which began his association with Clarke and DP Douglas Slocombe. There's an editor's precision to his work on The Lavender Hill Mob: note how economical this film is, coming in at not much over an hour and a quarter. The editor here is another future director, Seth Holt. Together they pull off a literally dizzying setpiece where Holland and Pendlebury run frantically down the steps of the Eiffel Tower. Holt's career was cut short by alcoholism, contributing to a death by heart attack at age forty-eight. Crichton had a long career, working in television from the late sixties until John Cleese hired him to make A Fish Called Wanda.
The Lavender Hill Mob won an Oscar for Clarke's story and screenplay, and Guinness was nominated for Best Actor, losing to Gary Cooper in High Noon. Crichton, Clarke, Slocombe and many of the same cast, including Holloway, James and Martin, reunited two years after The Lavender Hill Mob in another much-loved Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt.
The Lavender Hill Mob is reissued by Optimum for its sixtieth anniversary on a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. There is also a Blu-ray edition. Affiliate links from this refer to the DVD; links for the Blu-ray can be found here. The film begins with its 1951 BBFC U certificate.
The film was shot in Academy Ratio, as was everything else before the introduction of Cinerama and CinemaScope. The DVD respects that aspect ratio, but unusually presents it anamorphically enhanced, that is the 1.33:1 image is pillarboxed inside a 16:9 frame – presumably a straight downconvert of the Blu-ray transfer which would be presented the same way. This won't be an issue for owners of widescreen televisions, but anyone watching it on a 4:3 set may well find the image heavily windowboxed. That cavil aside, this is an excellent transfer, with Slocombe's black and white camerawork looking as it should: solid blacks, clear whites, plenty of shades of grey in between and natural-looking filmlike grain. By way of comparison, the second screengrab below is from Warner's 2002 DVD release in the four-film boxset Ealing Comedy DVD Collection. That release wasn't bad for its day, but is softer than the new release, which is based on a (2K) high definition scan.
The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well-balanced. Thankfully, Optimum have provided optional hard-of-hearing subtitles, though they're on the feature only.
Martin Scorsese begins the extras with a short introduction (3:38). As you can guess from the short running time (which includes three film extracts) this is nothing more than an overview – though he does make the point about how Crichton's editing background shows. It's always a pleasure to listen to Scorsese talking about films, other people's as well as his own, but this could easily have been longer. This and the Clarke interview are the only items on this DVD in 4:3.
Of those involved either in front of or behind the camera in The Lavender Hill Mob, the only ones alive as of this writing are Douglas Slocombe (at age 98) and presumably several of those schoolgirls. However, the director and writer are present via the archive. Charles Crichton is interviewed by Sidney Cole in 1988 (12:49) as part of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) History Project. This is audio-only and backed with a still from The Lavender Hill Mob. Subtitles are not provided for this, though they would have been useful as the sound quality is quite rough, as an opening caption advises us, and not always easy to make out.
T.E.B. Clarke turns up in an interview with Mavis Nicholson (24:43) from an edition of the ITV daytime chat show Good Afternoon (24:43) from sometime in the 1970s (no copyright date at the end). The whole programme is given over to Clarke, who has an avuncular presence but is clearly enjoying himself and comes up with some choice anecdotes, such as his experiences in Hollywood and a meeting with Marilyn Monroe. The clips from The Lavender Hill Mob and other films are very contrasty. The videotape of this television show has seen better days, with Clarke's check jacket causing moire patterns galore and the opening Thames Television fanfare looking distinctly scratched.
Also on the disc are a restoration comparison (4:11), a behind-the-scenes stills gallery (1:04) and
the theatrical trailer (2:25), which was the only extra on the earlier Warners edition and is so contrasty that the whites are blown out.
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