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This is a review of the digitally restored Region B2 Vintage Classics Blu-ray released by Studiocanal. And it is for the original 1955 Ealing Comedy Classic, not the remake. Technically, the film looks and sounds wonderful. Artistically, it merits 5 Stars.
‘The Ladykillers’ was the last major comedy produced by the prolific and iconic British film studios, Ealing. It is also one of the best, and like all their top comedies, it has a strong but simple plot, and first class characterisation. Alec Guiness, who graces many of Ealing’s finest offerings, is on excellent form as the creepy and sinister Professor Marcus. He is superbly supported by an eccentric gang of inept villains, including Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. Jack Warner plays the local Police Superintendent with his usual authority, and Katie Johnson, in reality in her late 70s, plays Marcus’s genteel landlady, Mrs Louisa Wilberforce. For her delicious performance as the dotty and naive nemesis of the gang, she won the BAFTA for Best Actress.
The action takes place in Central London, around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. We see stunning views of a London long changed beyond recognition. It is beautifully shot, with some wonderful chase sequences, and great use made of steam trains, railway stations and a wide range of vehicles from London cabs to horse-drawn dreys.
The humour is very British, and especially as the film progresses, increasingly black. The director, Alexander Mackendrick, takes no prisoners. The villains become increasingly frustrated and desperate, but in the end, virtue wins the day. Hurrah!
This is, in my view, the best of the Ealing comedies. It was also, I believe, its swan song. The genius of Katie Johnson, who played the old lady Mrs Wilberforce, really should have won her the following year's Oscar for her superb performance which was delicate, naive and incredibly funny. The brilliance of the other actors and stars shone bright, but she was the sweet little innocent figure on which the whole film pivoted, and she played her role like a chess master. If what I read of her is true, she was so desperate to get this part that she actually put up her own insurance for the filming when the company - who should have paid - lacked confidence that she would live long enough to complete the shoot. Her scenes are the best in the film. The story hinges on a group of crooks out to steal a large sum of cash from a security firm who are bringing the money through St Pancras or Kings Cross - which is behind her home. Professor Marcus, who has assessed her property as the one with the best vantage point for his plot, applies to rent rooms in her home, and she finds herself hostess to the very suspect "Professor" and his gang of hoodlums - who are passing themselves off as string orchestra musicians while their plot their heist. Mrs Wilberforce too, has, unwittingly, been corralled into their plot and they give her the task of collecting the stolen funds from the station in a very large trunk. True to form, she manages to slip beneath the radar of the bone-headed police and bring the trunk home - even as mayhem occurs with the crooks on the way back to her house. Then, when she discovers what she's done on their behalf, furious and determined to contact the police, the crooks start arguing amongst themselves to decide who is going to do away with her; but by now none of them have the heart to do it. She's got under the skin of even the worst of them. No one wants to kill her. The rest of the film is beyond brilliant, and so funny. The best scene is at the very end when she walks away, all the crooks dead and the police not really believing her that she's got all the stolen money, assuming that it was all just an old lady's afternoon nap dream: when she says "But what about the money?" asks honest Mrs Wilberforce. "Why don't you just keep it?" is their advice. Worthy of note: "Dixon of Dock Green" is the Superintendent and Frankie Howard features in an hilarious scene with a pony and a pile of market fruit.
Generally, movie producers of great British films use their directing and acting talent to promote their films. It was ever thus. We are lead to believe that a film is going to be a good watch because Alexander McKendrick or David Lean, for example, directed it. Or that the film is worth watching because, let's say, Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness are in it. They rarely trumpet the name of the screenwriter, which is a pity, because sometimes the writer can be the genius behind the whole thing. Grahame Green is often cited as a great writer of British films, but he's an exception - you can probably count the writers of great films, that you are aware of, on the fingers of one hand. Sometimes, it's true, the cast or the director can be the most important thing about a film. For example, a Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick film are almost always the sole creative work of their 'auteur' directors. The same applies to acting talent.
But it isn't always the case - and although 1955's 'The Ladykillers' has a stellar cast and top flight director, the writer is really the main creative contributor here. This is not to discount the role of Alexander McKendrick as director or cast members Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom or Alec Guinness. Far from it. But whilst it is possible to envisage alternative cast and directors bringing the script to the screen, without William Rose's script, it's impossible to conceive of any alternative script doing justice to that assembled talent.
First off, his 'Ladykillers' script was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA. He always said that the idea came to him in a dream - my kind of writer! William Rose had serious previous. He won an Academy Award for his script for 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katherine Hepburn. He had also previously written an Academy Award-nominated script for 'Genevieve' and would go on to write the script for the exquisite 'The Smallest Show on Earth', plus one of my all time favourites, the vast and sprawling comedy epic, 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World'.
Although an American, William Rose spent a good deal of his time in England, and married an English woman. It is very apparent from 'The Ladykillers' that he understood what it was to write an Ealing Comedy just as much as any native writer of those comedies and that above and beyond that, he had a detailed knowledge of London. The plot of 'The Ladykillers' is very much dependent on the geography of where the heist is planned, where it takes place and its immediate aftermath - the old lady's lopsided house precariously balancing above the entrance to a railway tunnel, the grandeur of the backdrop of St Pancras railway station and Kings Cross railway station where the heist actually takes place. Indeed, a cottage industry has sprung up around discussing the shooting locations, partly inspired by the fascinating area of London in which he sets his comedy.
Next, it is William Rose's characters that hold our attention. Katie Johnson's eccentric old lady, Cecil Parker's gentleman con artist, Peter Seller's cockney spiv, Herbert Lom's euro gangster and Alec Guinness' sinister old professor.
And above all, it is William Rose's skill in connecting his clever plot, fascinating characters and interesting locations that singles 'The Ladykillers' out as an exceptional, perhaps the most exceptional of all of the Ealing Comedies. Maybe the film's greatest compliments are paid to it by all of its imitators and adaptors - there have been several stage adaptations, a couple of radio adaptions and a 2004 Coen Brothers film remake starring Tom Hanks. But William Rose's 1955 film version rules supreme. And earns a comfortable 5 stars from me.
We all know the film - but to see it in 4K and colour is simply a joy. It is impossible to find fault with it!
I remember first seeing it in B&W on TV but it was actually filmed in Technicolor. That process captured crisp, vibrant colours that were then recombined in printing. The Technicolor three-strip camera captured s onto three strips of film. Light entered the camera through the lens and was divided prisms onto the three film paths. The 'look' of the resulting colour print is quite different to most modern films, but is true to itself - very pure, very crisp and generally interesting simply to watch. The lighting is very Noir throughout - probably why it still looked good in B&W!
This film is a classic of its’ time. The street scenes and acting are from a bygone era, but therein lies the charm and fun which this film delivers. Humorous and fun, it provides good entertainment for a quiet afternoon, and is particularly relevant at the current time for escapism. The enhanced version and colour which this DVD offers, is an added bonus.
Many well known character actors providing amusement for all the family. Watch the little old lady when she fills the kettle, such comic timing is priceless. Seeing London in the mid 1950s and steam trains is a cornucopia of nostalga for all those history buffs of that time. You'll have lots of fun.
Wonderful visual and aural restoration of a superb Ealing comedy. Stunning clarity and richness of colour. Excellent for steam railway afficiados of the area around Kings Cross station, Belle Isle and Copenhagen Tunnel. Great memories of a time long gone are instantly revived. A very enjoyable film.