Thursday 29 October 2015

The Ladykillers (1955)

Plyds og Papegøjer
In 2004 the Coen brothers made a remake of the British comedy ”The Ladykillers”. While not their greatest movie ever it is a very watchable movie, not just for being a Coen brother’s film, but because the original story is terrific.

That was my entry into the movie, knowing and liking the remake, and that of course makes for high expectations. Add to that that I have been generally fond of the Ealing comedies of which this one is the last in a box set I bought of those. Luckily I was not disappointed.

The central elements to the story is similar to the Coen version, but there are notable differences, the biggest in my opinion being that this is a British production taking place in London. That sets a unique tone that you just could not emulate anywhere else.

Mrs. Wilberforce (wonderfully played by Katie Johnson) is the epitome of a sweet old lady starting to go slightly cuckoo. She is both adorable and a menace, politeness itself and obnoxious. When a criminal gang rents a room in her house they think they have found the perfect dupe to complete their scheme for a brilliant heist. Half way through the movie they seem to be right, but then things start to go terribly wrong, not least because of Mrs. Wilberforce.

The gang is led by Professor Marcus, another one of Alec Guinness wonderful characters. He truly is a man of a hundred faces and here he is hardly recognizable, but his voice, oh his voice, it is so distinct. Only Alec Guinness had that voice. Close your eyes and it is Obi-Wan Kenobi saying “Now, now, Mrs. Wilberforce”. Professor Marcus is the mastermind and has that air of weird genius about him. His team consists of the homely Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), big guy “One-Round” Lawson (Danny Green), hired gun Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom) and Peter Sellers in one of his early roles as the hustler Harry Robinson.

The gang pretends to be a practicing string quintet while planning and carrying of an elegant heist. The brilliant part of the theft is that it is Mrs. Wilberforce who in all innocence will drive the money home thinking she is picking up a package for Professor Marcus. This all works beautifully until they have to leave with their money and a silly accident reveal to the old lady that something is very much amiss. The gang realize they have to shut her up, but these tough criminals turn out to be absolutely terrible at killing old ladies. Instead they end up killing each other off one by one (ooops, spoiler, unless you saw the remake).

Both halves are terrific. The scheme is both elegant and crazy as such things always are in movies, but it is in the interaction with Mrs. Wilberforce that we get all the laughs. She is a hoot. In fact the second half is a riot and my favorite scene of the entire movie is the tea party of cackling old ladies in Mrs. Wilberforce living room with the gang as unwilling entertainment. Somehow this scene could only have been made in England.

It is not difficult to see why the Coen Brothers wanted to make a remake of this movie. There are many classic elements to it and so many hilarious avenues that can be explored and transplanting the story to the American South they could build a different tone on the same ideas. I think I prefer the original though and that is not just because it is the original, but because it works so well in the triangle of Katie Johnson, Alec Guinness and the British tone.

Compared to the earlier Ealing comedies this one is in color and that makes it feel immensely more modern and ultimately accessible to a modern audience. It is not the glorious, in your face Technicolor that Powell and Pressburger used in the forties, but a more subdued coloring that fits the grimy and half derelict set around Kings Cross station and Mrs. Wilberforce’s house. Definitely a good choice.

I was quite surprised to find that Peter Sellers played a part in this movie. I did not recognize him, but that is primarily because his character is secondary to the story, hardly more than a henchman. Still it is great to see another great actor make his appearance in movies.

The List is short on good comedies and often they feel dated and flat to a modern audience. So much more enjoyment when we get one that still holds up. Yes, this one is terrific and if you only saw the remake this is one to catch.

Professor, would you like you tea now?


  1. I love this movie and your review made me smile at all the memories it brought up.

    1. Soon it is your turn, Bea. This is one to look forward to.

  2. That scene was my favourite too. The looks on the gangs' faces are priceless!

    I need to re-watch this; I remember it reminded me partly of a Disney cartoon in its mad-cap foolery way (a good thing!).

    I have noticed that the 1001 book starts to have less comedies in its as you go through the decades; and as you say, there aren't that many to start with. Probably because not everyone finds the same thing funny, but tragedy is universal.

    1. Yes, it has a cartoonish element, but it never gets overly silly as opposed to some comedies I have been watching lately.
      You are right about comedies, they only really work if you are in the target group or rather, they loose effectiveness the further removed you are as opposed to dramas. Even then it is obvious that comedies are considered less quality than drama, both by the Academy and the List. There are many terrific comedies that are entirely overlooked and that is a shame, really.

  3. There's such joy in these old Ealing comedies. I love all of them, but I especially love the ones that feature Alec Guinness.

  4. I would agree with you except that the best one I have seen Whiskey Galore is actually without Alec Guinness. But it is true that he singlehandedly can lift a movie. Always a joy to watch.

  5. I seem to be in the minority that also likes the Coen Brothers remake just as much as the original.

    1. I actually thought it was not bad. It is almost impossible for the Coens to batch it up, but I liked this one better, mainly because it hits that exact vibe I like in comedies.