Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 The Ladykillers, not that dreadful 2004 remake, is arguably one of the greatest comedic heist capers of all time. The film, with a quintessentially British feel, brings together highly respected talents of twentieth century film.
Mackendrick’s film, sometimes referenced as a black dramedy, revolves around a newly assembled band of robbers intent on committing a daring heist at King’s Cross St Pancras station. The Ladykillers, recognising the splendour of steam trains, is a remarkable reminder of times gone-by.
Alec Guinness, having previously played Henry “Dutch” Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), was no stranger to criminally minded characters. Conversely, this time detecting crime, the actor had also played the titular Father Brown in Robert Hamer’s The Detective (1954).
The Ladykillers, further to Guinness, also stars Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, and Danny Green. Despite these talents bringing to the production a perfect on-screen chemistry, one that makes us believe in their collective criminality, there is no getting away from how exceptional Katie Johnson is as landlady Mrs Louisa Wilberforce.
Mrs Wilberforce, seeking lodgers to rent rooms in her rickety Victorian house, had placed an advertisement on a board at the entrance of a nearby newsagent’s shop. The house, relatively unremarkable, is located at the end of a cul-de-sac facing St Pancras station. The Victorian gothic tower, a prominent St Pancras station feature, is the structure Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) almost collides with when flying his father’s magically enhanced car.
Johnson’s character, a well-meaning dotty old lady, is first introduced when she pays a brief visit to the police station. Mrs Wilberforce must be an important pillar of the community because, when the Desk Sergeant (Philip Stainton) sees her approaching the police station, he immediately calls for the Superintendent (Jack Warner).
This brief interaction, noting certain aspects of their conversation, foreshadows later exchanges between them. Mrs Wilberforce, having almost forgotten her umbrella, stops by the newsagent’s shop before returning home to her house.
Guinness’ Professor Marcus, even though we don’t know it yet, makes his presence felt. These scenes, carefully edited together so that his face isn’t immediately seen on screen, posses an obviously sinister tone. All we initially see of the character is a threatening silhouette. The reveal comes shortly after Mrs Wilberforce arrives home.
Professor Marcus, even though Guinness perfectly pulled off playing the character, had been a part destined for Alastair Sim. Sim, the previous year, played twins Headmistress Millicent Fritton and brother Clarence Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954). The actor, the same year, had also played Inspector Poole in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Sim, apparently with commitments to either Escapade or Wee Geordie (1955), was unavailable for Mackendrick’s film.
The professor, having arrived first, introduces Mrs Wilberforce to his cohorts as they arrive one by one. Major Claude Courtney, Louis Harvey, Harry Robinson, and ‘One-Round’ Lawson, respectively played by Parker, Lom, Sellers, and Green are the least likely group of people ever assembled. They, individually speaking, have significant issues which makes for excellent comedic scenes.
Parker’s cowardly Claude, reminiscent of a Cluedo character, possesses a possibly dubious military record. Lom’s Louis, a stern-faced unsmiling heavy, is an excessively ruthless. Sellers’ Harry, characterised as a London teddy boy, is the quintessential comedic Cockney spiv. Green’s One-Round, a punch-drunk failed boxer that never managed to make it into a second round, is seemingly the dimmest of the bunch.
The five criminals, inclusive of the professor, accurately reflects a cross-section of British 1950’s society. Conceal their real purpose, making effective use of a Boccherini’s Minuet recording, the quintet presents itself as a group of amateur musicians.
Mrs Wilberforce, on first hearing the string quintet “rehearse,” recalls Boccherini’s Minuet being played at her 21st birthday party. The party, with Mrs Wilberforce having revealed there had been news of Mrs Wilberforce, was held on Tuesday, 22 January 1901.
The criminal quintet, despite Louis’ obvious paranoia, proves nowhere near a match for the old-fashioned English values Mrs Wilberforce steadfastly obsesses over. Each one, as the film progresses, meets an untimely death. Mrs Wilberforce, with a passing resemblance to Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marble, perfectly personifies Victorian confidence in the Edwardian era.
There is however moments scattered through out the production, noting how each criminal dies, that makes the professor, Claude , Louis , Harry , and ‘One-Round’ endearing. It is easy to see how, even though we’re talking about dirty rotten craven scoundrels, one could sympathise with each member of the quintet.
Johnson’s performance, coupled with well-paced characterisations by Guinness, Parker, Lom, Sellers, and Green, is what carries much of Mackendrick’s film.
Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, George Roderick, Ewan Roberts, Arthur Mullard, Stratford Johns, Harold Goodwin, Madge Brindley, Sam Kydd, Edie Martin, and Neil Wilson, all of which going on to greater things during their careers, play supporting and minor characters.