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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Ladykillers

One of the best dark comedies ever made, The Ladykillers is also one of the best films to make Ealing Studios famous. For a while in the '50s (this film is from 1955) that studio made a series of droll, mordant comedies, most of them starring Alec Guinness.

Guinness stars here, as a master criminal. He has rented a house from a little old lady (Katie Johnson) and plans to use her in his robbery. His associates pretend to be playing classical music while instead they plot the crime.

In a touch of Warner Brothers cartoons, these so-called criminals are no match for Johnson, who is guileless yet imperturbable, like Granny in the Tweetie Bird shorts. She dotes on her parrots and has a thing about serving tea, but she manages to beat these crooks at their own game.

Co-starring with Guinness is Cecil Parker as the faux-British gentleman, Danny Green as the hulking ex-boxer, Herbert Lom as the vicious one, and Peter Sellers in an early role that is oddly bland. Ironically, Lom and Sellers would team up many years later as Inspector Clouseau and Commissioner Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther films.

Written by William Rose, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (who also made Sweet Smell of Success, which couldn't be more different), The Ladykillers is a savagely funny film. At a certain point the gang concludes they must kill the old lady to keep her from talking. They draw matches to see who will do it. After that person fails, there is a cut to a hand holding four matches--brilliant. This film gets everything about black humor right, while amazingly, the Coen Brothers, who are also known for dark humor, got the remake completely wrong.

Guinness is a hoot. Wearing prosthetic teeth that make him look like Alistair Sim (who was supposed to play the role), he is perfect as a smart man who keeps seeing his brilliant plan go astray. He utters the marvelous line "What else could go wrong." Late in the film he admits his plan was done in by the human element.

The climax of the film, above a railroad tunnel, is equal parts Coyote vs. the Roadrunner and Spy vs. Spy. Somewhere in England there was a train full of dead bodies.

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