The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: William Rose
Stars: Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Cecil Parker (The Mayor), Herbert Lom (Louis), Peter Sellers (Harry), Danny Green (One-Round), Katie Johnson (Mrs. Wilberforce), Jack Warner (Police Superintendent), Philip Stainton (Police Sergeant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: UK
The Ladykillers DVD Cover

Because England is a country well known for its cultural refinement, black comedy has always been a natural fit there because it can play off those proper manners in absurdly comic ways. Take, for instance, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, a wonderfully macabre comedy about a gang of professional criminals who meet their demise because their plan is inadvertently foiled by a little old lady whom they simply cannot bring themselves to kill.

The gang of criminals is led by Professor Marcus (Alex Guinness), who devises an intricate plan to rob two armored cars. The rest of the gang consists of men who have never met each other before (think a mid-’50s English Reservoir Dogs): Louis (Herbert Lom), a tough-talking Italian gangster; The Mayor (Cecil Parker), an ex-military man turned con artist; One-Round (Danny Green), a hulking, but big-hearted lug of a man; and Harry (Peter Sellers in his screen debut), a well-coifed teddy boy.

In need of a place to meet while working out their scheme, Professor Marcus rents two upstairs room in the rambling Victorian house of a elderly widow named Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), who is quite chirpy and given to longwinded stories (she also owns two parakeets). Professor Marcus introduces his gang as an amateur orchestra in need of a place to play, and they all show up with string instruments and then huddle upstairs while a record player provides the music they are supposedly practicing.

The first half of the movie is built largely around the comedy that ensues whenever Mrs. Wilberforce interrupts the criminals’ planning meetings (which is, by the way, very, very often). She knocks on their door constantly, asking in an exasperatingly sweet hum if they would like some tea, or some coffee, or if one of them would come downstairs to help her give medication to one of her pesky parakeets.

One might wonder why the gang would put up with all of this, and it turns out that Professor Marcus’ plan relies on using Mrs. Wilberforce to pick up the £60,000 of stolen money at London’s Kings Cross Station (she, of course, has no idea what she’s involved in). They come within inches of getting away with the scheme, but Mrs. Wilberforce inadvertently finds out what they’re up to and demands (in her ever-so-sweet maternal cadence) that they simply must return the money. Professor Marcus and the others think that she can be reasoned with, but nothing doing: She is determined that they should return the money and that’s that.

So, what’s left to do but off the old woman? Thus, the movie’s second half details the various attempts by the men to kill Mrs. Wilberforce, but they are constantly undermined by their own incompetence, their internal bickering with one another, and, most importantly, their general unwillingness to kill a sweet elderly lady. Mrs. Wilberforce’s house sits at the end of a dead-end street, and it couldn’t be a more appropriate location as the criminals end up killing each other off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways (all the violence is, of course, kept off screen, the bodies reduced to legs sticking out a wheelbarrow that must dumped on trains that pass behind the house).

When The Ladykillers works, it is brilliantly funny stuff. The dark nature of the comedy plays perfectly because the actors take their roles so seriously. Alec Guinness, a consummate character actor, leads the way with his nasal-toned Professor Marcus, sporting a pair of deliciously obtrusive false teeth that are alone worth the price of admission; he comes across like a mad scientist posing as a doddery English professor. And, although she only starred in a handful of other films, Katie Johnson is the key to the film’s success, walking a perfect tightrope between being unbearably chipper and achingly vulnerable. Her Mrs. Wilberforce is both in complete control and utterly clueless about what she’s stumbled into. Just look at one of the film’s comedic high points, when she forces the criminals—whom she has already uncovered as such—to endure a longwinded afternoon tea with her group of gossipy old lady friends. It’s a wonderfully droll scene in which the foxes are surrounded by a bunch of clucking chickens and can’t do anything about it.

The Ladykillers was the last film to be produced at England’s famed Ealing Studios, which since 1896 had been the home for such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1939) and Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). It is very much a stagy production—one could almost imagine it playing in a theater and not losing an ounce of effect. But, even if The Ladykillers lacks a true cinematic edge, it is still one of the funniest and most wicked British comedies ever made.

The Ladykillers DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.55:1
LanguagesEnglish, French
Subtitles English
DistributorAnchor Bay Entertainment
Release DateSeptember 10, 2002

1.66:1 (Anamorphic)
The Ladykillers is presented for the first time on home video in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in a new anamorphic transfer from a very clean source print. The resulting image may look a bit disappointing in terms of color and clarity, but that is likely due to the original film stock, rather than the transfer process. The color palette is quite dull and doesn’t pop off the screen the way early Technicolor films do. The image is just a bit soft, although the detail is fine enough to show the textures of the clothing and to highlight how bad the limited blue-screen work in the film was.

English, French Dolby 2.0 Monaural
The Dolby monaural soundtrack is clean and clear, with no distortion or aural artifacts. There is a slight amount of noticeable ambient hiss throughout, but nothing distracting.

Original theatrical trailer
Presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Alec Guinness biography

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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