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2 reviews, 10 user ratings

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Ladykillers, The (1955)
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by Jay Seaver

"Oh, what innocence leaves in its wake!"
4 stars

The theme given for the Harvard Film Archive's retrospective of director Alexander Mackendrick's films is "The Anarchy of Innocence". It's a theme that runs through all his films, perhaps never more clearly than in his best-known work, Ealing Studios' "The Ladykillers".

One is unlikely to find a more innocent person than Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a widow of some years who is currently busy apologizing to the local police superintendent (Jack Warner) for the previous day's report of an alien invasion. She's also advertising for a boarder, an offer that "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness) takes her up on. Any reasonable person can see that this man is not to be trusted, and his story that he and his friends are a string quartet is absurd. Those friends are Claude (Cecil Parker), Harry (Peter Sellers), One-Round (Danny Green), and Louis (Herbert Lom), and they're planning a payroll robbery. Their plan involves Mrs. Wilberforce's unwitting participation, and is, of course, vulnerable to the greed of its participants.

Katie Johnson is billed seventh, as "The Old Lady", which doesn't come close to indicating how crucial she is to every part of the film. She initially appears little more than someone worthy of pity, and we're never quite able to take her seriously throughout the film. And yet we never fear for her or find her to be in particular danger, because she does have that purity of heart that almost wills her to be safe. She's not given many lines that are funny in and of themselves, but she delivers them with dry perfection. As befits the lead in a Mackendrick movie, she has the sort of innocence that leaves a trail of destruction behind her, and though it's not always easy to believe in her obliviousness to it, Johnson sells us on that, as well as the moment when she does realize just what she's involved in.

The five crooks of the title are all amusing in their own way. Alec Guinness makes Marcus into a grotesquery, with a face filled with ugly teeth and hair and an oily, arrogant manner that immediately repulses everyone in the audience. It is, truth be told, the sort of outlandish character one might normally expect Peter Sellers to be playing, but Sellers is perhaps the least memorable of the crew, a somewhat jittery youngster. Cecil Parker is blustery and charming as the middle-aged veteran, while Herbert Lom tends to dominate scenes with his slick, hard-edged tough. It's Danny Green who steals the show, though, as the group's muscle, and though he basically hits on every familiar note as the big, dumb lummox sick of being called stupid, it's seldom been done so well.

Mackendrick and the other filmmakers place and keep us in a world that is slightly askew, filled with pictures that won't hang straight because the house itself has been crooked since the War. Marcus first appears as a menacing shadow, and his face seems to go to pieces along with his patience. The heist is a wonderfully timed bit of action, and the last act, where the crooks try to eliminate the old lady but find themselves stymied, is wonderfully nasty and a brilliant example of how to use a running gag to punctuate what's going on.

Nearly fifty years later, the Coen brothers would assemble a fine cast in their attempt to transplant the story to America, but they would be unable to capture the original's innocence and anarchy. It's Mackendrick's specialty, and seldom is it done to better effect.

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originally posted: 01/12/09 16:04:45
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User Comments

7/06/18 Suzanne Katie Johnson is a delight in this hysterical comedy. 5 stars
1/07/17 Danny Britsh comedy is the best! 5 stars
6/15/16 Suzanne What a delight! Katie Johnson gives a classic performance. 5 stars
1/15/09 brian Greatest little old lady in the history of cinema. 5 stars
1/19/05 Landshark at least it compares favorably with Duplex, I hope the remake's better 3 stars
8/23/04 john bale Guiness at his best as sinister Prof. Katie Johnson wonderful as frail old lady. Just Great 5 stars
3/27/04 Barbara Whelan 1955 "Ladykillers"; This film is exquisite in all respects. 5 stars
2/11/04 Jasper X. Funbowler Intelligent, classy, yet equal parts dark and lighthearted Ealing comedy. Alec's best role 5 stars
2/10/04 tatum Funny, beautifully filmed 4 stars
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  20-Feb-1956 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Sep-2002



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