As if I wasn’t going to dip my toe in for more Peter Sellers! Yes, the pre-eminent British comedian returns, but nine years earlier than Dr. Strangelove in 1955 comedy The Ladykillers – yet, Sellers isn’t the one that steals the show…
The plot is simple, yet oh-so-effective: dapper thief Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) rents a room from elderly widow Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), for him and his group of cohorts, posing as a string quartet. Utilising Mrs Wilberforce in the perfect bank robbery, they slip up in front of the old woman as they try to escape – when she insists they must return the money, they all come to the agreement that they must murder her.
But, of course, it’s never quite as simple as that. Dark and incredibly entertaining, The Ladykillers is, interestingly, almost an asinine version of the classic heist-gone-wrong. Just 5 years earlier we’d seen The Asphalt Jungle, and while obviously very different films – one an American noir, one a very British crime-comedy – the theme of robbers let down by their own personal failings is surprisingly similar.
See, The Ladykillers is made by its brilliantly deft characterisations of an absurdly jocular group of criminal misfits: Professor Marcus, a bizarre, creepy, seedy, yet ingenious, mastermind; Major Courtney, a supercilious, cowardly and bluff military type; Louis, a hot blooded, vicious, untrusting mafioso; Harry, the cockney, spivvish Teddy Boy, in top Private Walker-esque fashion; and One-Round, the slow muscle man.
And all are perfectly executed by the actors, some of whom being the greatest character actors of their time. A 41-year-old Alec Guinness, at his deranged comedic best, is in top intimidating form, Danny Green gives an infamous and career best performance, while Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers, both looking very young, and both set for immeasurable amounts of success down the road, are happy to scheme out of the limelight. And no one can quite fumble like Cecil Parker.
It’s surprising that a film like this was made in 1955, three years after Elizabeth II was crowned, because for a time that promoted morality, class and decency, this is pretty dark. Killing an old lady? Unthinkable. Yet screenwriter William Rose had a dream exactly like that, and when he woke, he wrote down as much as he could remember; it’s hardly shocking, then, that The Ladykillers has the feeling of a ghoulish nightmare, a slightly off-kilter, haunted version of reality.
Despite their turbulent relationship, Rose and perfectionist director Alexander Mackendrick met with Ealing Studio chief, Michael Balcon, to discuss the idea. He was nothing short of bewildered:
Just let me get this straight. You have six principal actors and at the end of the picture five of them are dead. And you say this is a comedy?Michael Balcon
Yet a reluctant green light was given. Unfortunately, this was the last film made by Ealing Studios, and no doubt the darkest. It’s got a real edge to it, an unsettling dirtiness. It’s a gritty, corrosive caper, with the perfect amount of light, humorous touch.
Now, I like to think I’m an honest man, so I shall be – The Ladykillers is all about Mrs Wilberforce. At first she appears officious and infuriatingly principled. Yet, when she inquires at her locals whether anyone had responded to the advert for her rooms-to-rent, you can’t help but feel your heart melt for this sweet, sweet, old lady. Unlike the rest of the characters who feel like comedic caricatures of stereotypes, Mrs W is beautifully written, and a wholesomely sympathetic character. A little, helpless, far too polite widow, she helps us forget the Livia Sopranos and Miss Havishams, and bring too fore an archetypal character that is brought to the screen too little too often. Her character expands the film from inconsequential entertainment to a fascinating portrayal of a torn, post-war Britain.
But, the real question is, where the hell did they dig up Katie Johnson from? Interestingly enough, she came out of retirement for the part, and really steals the show with a performance perfect for the part. At 76, with her first real recognised recital, she won the British Film Academy award for best British actress. She unfortunately passed away two years after The Ladykillers, but she was well deserving of the part.
The direction is superb, and the screenplay is one little talked about, but demonstrates a rare thing – a complete comedy. With moody and atmospheric shots galore, cut together tightly for an intricate and flowing narrative, all alongside the superb colour and production design, creates something of a masterpiece. Of course, not everyone will like The Ladykillers – it’s 66 years old, and has a very unique humour, completely opposite that of a saccharine American sitcom – but it certainly deserves to be talked about more.
This is trailer for it below – I know I don’t usually include them, but this is a surprisingly great one, and will hopefully motivate you to give the film a much-deserved watch…
The Ladykillers – 8 out of 10