Is there any "way" to make a madcap 'black' comedy? The original The Ladykillers from the mid 1950's seems to want to be the example to show to everybody else how it's done. And with this premise how could it not be at least trying: a lovely little old British lady (how can she not be lovely save for if she's a wicked witch of the govn'r) is looking for a tenant for her spare room, and in from the shadows (literally, his first appearance is like a gaudy parody of Peter Lorre's silhouetted entrance in M) comes Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, a supposed classical musician who takes the room and occasionally (that is to say ALL the same) has guests performing music... but oh, they're not performing music, they're plotting a heist of lots and lots of pounds - 60,000 all told - right under the old lady's nose.
Every step of the way this doesn't pretend to be other than a comedy of manners, except when it's being macabre, which is quite often. While on another side of Europe (France) Clouzot was doing his macabre-way with a bathtub in Diabolique, Alexander Mackendrick (later director of the classic Sweet Smell of Success) was having a big, dark larf at the heist movie, and the extremes of human nature. With this story you have the little old lady who is so kind and thoughtful and never gives a second thought to want to do the right thing, though albeit with a little moment's thought when presented with a sorta-proposition by Guinness' character regarding the money. But the other men, the thieves, the "Unholy Five", are all crooked to one degree or another, and yet when faced with the little old lady they're for if but a brief moment caught in their tracks.
|Hello.. soon I will kill you, I mean, erm, how many pounds for the room, yes!|
There is a good deal of comedy that comes out of this tension that is more on the end of the criminals in the early scenes, such as when they're tasked to get one of the Old Lady's birds from atop a book-case, and then later it's... just awkward. She finds out about the whole situation just by the means of putting two together - she sees (in one of the biggest laughs I've ever had with a movie) the money go flying out of a briefcase stuck on a door - and has some old ladies over somewhat unexpectedly, and the men have to be 'gentlemen' and stick around for the tea party. And there is just so much that Guinness, who shows here if nowhere else how great he was with precise, smooth comic timing all based on looks and the use of voice, is able to milk here with his interactions with Katie Johnson that it boggles the mind. It's a master's class in moral contrasts that in another, more traditional, context could make for a solid thriller.
But Mackendrick is after showing how the British go about mucking things up. These guys should have it down how to pull off this heist, and for a moment by some other dumb luck (i.e. the bumbling marketplace man with his horse that the Old Lady is so bothered by and makes a big scene of it) it looks as if the Unholy Five will get away with it. But where's the fun in that, eh? In part it stems from when Guiness is introduced, having a bit of the Lorre stature (and maybe a slight visual nod when he arrives to Hitchcock's The Lodger), that gives the film its twisted undercurrent. Then it continues as they keep getting interrupted while "playing" classical music. And once the cat is out of the proverbial bag, the comic insanity reaches a feverish pitch (where it could spill over, and probably does, into full-on thriller territory) in the last half hour as the men have to decide how to "get rid" of the woman.
|"This is an EX Parrot!" "Wrong sketch!" "Oh, right, right, carry on then."|
The sort of plan the Professor devises won't be new at all to those who saw the Coen brothers inferior (could it be any other way) remake with Tom Hanks, only there it was over a river bank. Here the mood that is reached here is not very funny, but feels just about right for what Mackendrick and writer William Rose are going for. The foreboding sense of "the end" of these people is in such stark contrast to the nearly saintly innocence of the Old Lady that it practically takes on the air of a nasty little fairy tale, with the Professor the Big Bad Wolf with Bad British Teeth (which is Redundant in Caps).
With his minions like Peter Sellers (who, somewhat surprisingly I should note, is not the funniest thing here but merely a good, amusing side character with a few keen reaction shots), it's at once a wonderful comic caper and a sly statement on good and evil, and if the lines can ever blur - at least when the Old Lady's former Old Man is staring down from the picture (and no, unlike in the remake, he doesn't goofily change his facial expression with every glance).
|"My, you sure have changed since the 90's New Kids on the Block!" "Uh, yeah, right, that's Donnie over in the hat."|
I don't mean to harp too much on the remake, by the way, as that film has its own merits (J.K. Simmons for one, who is funnier than any of the supporting crooks in the original), and yet is brought down by just trying to do *too BIG much* where a tightrope walk of comedy and thriller is needed (ironically the Coens reached that perfect pitch much earlier in their careers with Raising Arizona, but I digress). But what makes this 1955 film stick so much in the mind after it ends is, yes, the performances from Guinness and Johnson, and also how sharp it is in its sensibility. If it weren't so damn funny (or maybe because of it) it would be downright haunting as British film-noir goes.
PS: Fun fact: William Rose wrote the script after having the entire movie play in a dream he had... freaky, and righteous too...