The Ladykillers: An appreciation of Ealing Studios’ finest comedy

Before Alexander Mackendrick moved to the U.S to direct the deadly serious noir classic The Sweet Smell of Success, he had a successful run directing a host of comedies for London’s Ealing Studios, beginning with Whisky Galore, The Man in the White Suit, Mandy, The Maggie and The Ladykillers. The Ladykillers was not only Mackendrick’s final film in the U.K but also Ealing Studios’ final production before BBC took over.

One of the finest black comedies ever made, the film boasts a stellar and colourful cast portraying a moronic criminal gang: Alec Guinness as a deranged criminal mastermind under the guise of a charming old man called “Professor Marcus”, Cecil Parker as the seemingly innocuous, well-mannered and cowardly Major Claude Courtney, Herbert Lom as a remorseless and practical-minded thug called Louis Harvey, and Peter Sellers as the occasionally clumsy Harry Robinson, and Danny Green as a dim-witted ex-boxer called ‘One-Round’ Lawson.

The men, in the hope of staging a robbery at a nearby railway station, take up residence in the home of a nearly delusional old widow called Mrs. Wilberforce, who rents them her place assuming they are a string quintet. The lady lives with two parrots and the men occasionally have to do her few favours, reluctantly, whenever she requests them to. After the robbery is successfully carried out, they store the loot in the house and make her an unwitting accomplice when she learns the truth about their actual profession. When she stubbornly refuses to budge and decides to inform the police, they decide to do her in.

The question is who will do it? This leads to an ingeniously staged, unpredictable and elaborately comical climax like something straight of a cartoon, with disastrous consequences. In my opinion, this is Guinness’ most memorable role; he seems to have had a lot of fun playing this character, with his pale face, blonde hair and false teeth giving him a look that is at once scary and comical. However crazy some of these men are, they are no match for Mrs. Wilberforce, who foils their plan and is an unlikely adversary just by being terribly naïve and old-fashioned.

The film is an instant classic owing to its clever writing and delightful performances from everyone involved – the interactions between the men are hilarious, despite the dark tone in some of them. It’s one of those comedies I pop in whenever I’m feeling a bit down.

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