The Ladykillers (1955)

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First month in another year of 12 Classics/ the Blind Spot Challenge, and what a great way to start off, with the delightfully dark and brilliant comedy The Ladykillers.

A criminal gang planning a heist (Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Danny Green) take a room to let at the lopsided, wacky home of Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). Since they’re pretending to be musicians they lock themselves in upstairs to plot the robbery and put on records to fool The Old Lady, whom they also plan to unwittingly involve in their caper. But as they soon learn, no really good plan could include the challenge of Mrs. Wilberforce. Defeated and driven nutty by the endless ways the tough Old Lady has derailed their foolproof plan and turned them against each other, “Professor Marcus” (Guinness) laments, “There were only five of us…It would take 40 perhaps to deal with her because we’ll never be able to kill her…”

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Everything about this is funny, from the setup to the phony, oddball string quintet playing the same pretty minuet over and over, The Old Lady’s persistence and their feigned politeness, Guinness’s false teeth and creepy stare, Lom’s cold villainy and Green’s dopiness. The close calls as the just-stolen money is handled by the police before it makes it back to the house are priceless, as is the bit where the gang are trying to get away but decide to kill the Old Lady first, and end up having a tea party with a roomful of her friends. Contemplating whether they should kill her visitors too, more and more arrive, prompting Harry (Sellers) to ask if they should “charter a bus.” The Old Lady’s scolding, insistence on going to the police, the gang’s attempts to kill her and failure to do so results in some of the funniest bumbling, backstabbing, and death I’ve ever seen.

Ironically, Mrs. Wilberforce is the “Lady who cries wolf” down at the police station, so the gang needn’t have worried. The police politely humour her spaceship sightings and sort out the dramas she creates about town between taxi drivers and merchants, and when she tells them of the gang who vanished during the night and left all that cash in her house, they tell her to keep the money and never mention it again. With a shrug she says she can finally replace that ugly umbrella she keeps “forgetting” everywhere.

Almost every time I watch a good movie I check to see what one of my favourite reviewers Glenn Erickson aka DVD Savant had to say about it. In this case he talks about the connections between Mrs. Wilberforce and Granny in the Tweety & Sylvester cartoons. There and elsewhere, it’s pointed out that Alec Guinness based his character on Alistair Sim (possibly Kenneth Tynan). It’s an all-time great comedy by director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success) and writer William Rose (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).

See many other movie bloggers’ discoveries in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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16 thoughts on “The Ladykillers (1955)”

  1. One of the greatest ‘black’ comedies ever put on the screen IMHO. A real ‘last blast’ from the ailing Ealing Studios. You wonder how they could have been ailing when they could still turn out such a superior film!!

    So much in it to enjoy – we get to hear plenty of that lovely string quintet by Luigi Boccherini – and then there’s the brief but funny interlude with the fruit and veg seller during the robbery getaway, played by comedian Frankie Howerd who was at his (1st) peak of success at that point.

    I always assumed that lovely rickety old house of Mrs. Wilberforce was an ‘actual’ house at the end of that little dead-end street in King’s Cross but I recently found out it was constructed especially for the film.

    Thoroughly agree with all you have to say about this classic, Kristina.

    1. That Minuet is a great piece of music (I would think/hope) everyone knows, so it’s fun to hear the variations of it in the score and at the end when unhinged Guinness sings it. That’s a cool fact about the house, speaking of which, I liked the line about its windows/windows of the soul, etc: “such a charming thought, I do hope someone expressed it.” So fun.

  2. So excited to read your review! I just watched Ladykillers this month and loved it. That is very interesting about the connection between Mrs. Wilberforce and Granny in Tweety. Now that you mention it, I could picture that. πŸ™‚

  3. This is one of the cleverest and funniest films ever made. Guinness seems to have possessed a natural flair for portraying the delightfully absurd – and there is truth in the absurdity, as there is in all great comedy. What a superb actor! What a grand film!

    1. He really did such wonderful work in this– that face he makes while playing the piano at the tea for example πŸ™‚ Great fun, will be enjoying it again for sure. Thanks

  4. An excellent film that I haven’t watched in ages but I’d like to now. The whole things has that special kind of artificiality about it that you often found in Ealing productions, perhaps not always quite so well realized as here though. I hadn’t heard about that cartoon connection before, but it does seem to make some sense.

    1. The colour is great, it’s so pretty for something so dark and fits the quality you mention. Another nice detail I liked a lot was the intro of Guinness’ character as a shadowy horror film figure.

  5. The ultimate black comedy. I’m not sure it’s ever been bettered. A delight from start to finish. I’d see it as a kid and question Mom if that chubby cheeked guy was really Clouseau! Gets better with every viewing and I love that comparison to Granny. Pure delight and as previously mentioned, couldn’t believe you hadn’t yet seen it.

    1. Absolutely and a treat to see young Clouseau with Dreyfus πŸ™‚ ! hilarious, I think my fave part, and that’s tough to pick, is Guinness and Lom’s talk at the end and the way they go. too funny.

  6. This is great! I actually just saw it screened last night at The Castro Theater in San Francisco, my first viewing too. The crowd ate it up 60 years later.

  7. Great review! Like Rick, I also saw it at The Castro a few nights ago, also my first viewing. What a wonderful (must-own) film! Rick is right – the crowd was howling with laughter as if the film were brand new. (I realized that the film steals the string quartet trick from THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938) with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, but they probably stole it from someplace else.) Great stuff!

    1. Sounds like such a great experience to see it with a crowd, and nice fit for Noir fest! Interesting about Clitterhouse– I’ve seen it but forgot all about that.

      1. It was a real blast! Everyone was really getting into it, as they did all the films. I wouldn’t have made the connection had I not seen Clitterhouse earlier this month. (They probably stole the idea from someone else!)

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