“Hey, you want to come see ‘The Ladykillers’ with me and The Boy?”
. . .
“It’s got Alec Guinness in it! He played Obi Wan Kenobi, you know.”
. . .
“He was also in your favorite movie.”
“Who was he in ‘Murder By Death?'”
“The blind butler.”
(laughs) “Hey, is he one of those guys like the guy in ‘Columbo’ who didn’t do it?”
“Ray Milland? You don’t understand: Ray Milland is ALWAYS guilty.”
“Robert Culp trumps Ray Milland.”
“True. But what about Milland?”
“Is Alec Guinness one of those guys who’s always old?”
“Oh, this should be Alec Guinness in his prime.”
Update: Alec Guinness was always old. He actually looks fairly old in Great Expectations, when he’s only 32. And by this time he’s 41, and is (for comic purposes) sort of hunchbacked, buck-toothed and stringy-haired—he’s basically doing Alistair Sim, whose Scrooge, some say, is the best—as he leads his gang of misfits on a mostly successful caper launched from the bedroom of a B&B run by a 75-year-old little old lady who reminisces about the queen dying on her 21st birthday. “Who’s she talkin’ about? Old queen who?” says One-Round, the muscle.
This is a clever black comedy, which takes English manners to an extreme, as our criminals manage to successfully pull of the heist using Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce as their bag man, but on the verge of getting away reveal themselves to her and thus decide they must eliminate her. The irony being that as tough and even murderous thugs as they are, they don’t quite have it in their hearts to kill a little old lady. The other irony being that the old lady has made herself such a nuisance to the police, they wouldn’t believe her anyway, though the thugs don’t know that.
A wonderful breakout performance from the 77-year-old Katie Johnson who would win her first and only BAFTA. Speaking of English manners, the director requested that she be given top-billing on the film because it might be her last. He had been her first choice for the role, but the producers feared she might not be able to complete the production at her age, and so they cast a younger actress—who died before filming started.
The first thing I noticed, after Alec Guinness’ Sim imitation, was that both Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom were part of the squad. Sellers was a little heavy and Lom was quite thin—a situation that would be reversed when the two played in The Pink Panther eight years later. Sellers, in his first real acting role is quite restrained and very nervous, which may not have been acting but which was quite effective. Lom is genuinely menacing here, and quite good, as always. (I have a soft spot for the old Bohemian, who worked over 70 years in just about anything—including a bunch of low-budget horror in the ’70s—and was always good.)
The crew is rounded out by Cecil Parker, who was a go-to for “If you need an English-looking colonel-type” and you couldn’t get Terry-Thomas, and Danny Green who looks amazingly familiar, though I can’t recall anything specific. He reminds me of Fargo’s John Carroll Lynch.
Director Alex Mackendrick, best known as the writer/director of Guinness’ breakout role in Man in the White Suit, lets the action build slowly. Movies used to do this sometimes: You’re introduced to a character who is amusing and empathetic (Mrs. Wilberforce) and show the menace literally shadowing her (in the form of Guinness’ “Professor Marcus”), and when the gang shows up at the boarding house, you wonder where they’re going with this plan and why Louisa is a part of it.
It’s not just a matter of where she lives, which is one advantage this film has on the 2004 Coen Brothers remake, where the landlady is just a bystander to the shenanigans. One is genuinely taken by the cleverness of the Professor Marcus’ plan, even if Louis (Lom) correctly identifies it as the sort of plan someone in a looney bin would make up. Another advantage it has it that it’s a distinctly English film at a time when that meant something. We can believe that, even if there is no honor among thieves, there is among even the lowest of Englishman a sense of propriety that does not allow for casually murdering an innocent old lady.
It’s a fun thing to spend 90 minutes with characters who are bank robbers and murderers that you still kind of like and feel sorta bad for when things don’t go their way.
Consistently rated as one of the greatest English films ever made.