"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 9, 2011

"The Lady-killers" (1955) with Alec Guinness (Film review)

The Lady Killers (1955) is one of the last comedies made by the Ealing Studio in London before it was wrapped up for having fallen behind the times. And indeed, although there are flashes of interesting black humor, as a whole the film is rather too soft and cosy, like the frayed finery in the Victorian mansion where most of the action takes place. The criminals are bungling bumpkins you can spot from a mile distance, the policemen are your favorite son-in-law who helps old ladies cross the road, and although several persons get killed, the process is totally bloodless. The story is funny in a cartoonish way, but there is not a shred of real suspense.

That is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here. 77-year-old Katie Johnson steals the show as the indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, renting out rooms in her Victorian house, and Alec Guinness plays criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, a fine comic performance of a man becoming gradually more unhinged. He is also over-polite in a sinister way and wears monstrous false teeth. His oddball gang of thieves includes a thuggish Peter Sellers and murderous Herbert Lom.

Professor Marcus pretends to be a musicologist who now and then will be receiving colleagues to rehearse music (they play a Boccherini record to mislead others) and uses Mrs Wilberforce's lodging rooms as hideaway. Her house is conveniently located at the end of a cul-de-sac, above the railroad tracks near St. Pancras Station, and the sweet old lady looks as if she is just as conveniently daft. But as usual when a crime has been carefully planned, something unforeseen happens during the robbery of 60,000 pounds from an armored bank van, and then the criminals also make the mistake of accidentally revealing their stack of banknotes (hidden in a cello case, which falls open) to the old lady.

So instead of fleeing, they decide they have to kill their landlady first - initially so harmless they even used her to carry the stolen cash from the station depot to her house, she now has become a liability. Well, easier said than done. The old fox, who looks so naive, easily outwits the five men. The thieves start quarreling among themselves, and instead of doing the old lady in, they end up finishing off each other, as each one looks for a chance to escape alone with all the loot. The last one, the "professor," is killed by a railroad sign while hanging from the bridge over the railroad tracks near the cul-de-sac (from which he has thrown several colleagues to their death). The old lady is very law obedient, so she goes to the police to inform the authorities and return the money left in her house by the dead robbers, but the police regard her as dotty and laughingly send her away. All the better for the old lady's finances...

Director of this film was Alexander Mackendrick, who would move to the U.S. and there make the cynical The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The Lady Killers is pleasantly silly and entertaining enough to help you pass a rainy afternoon, but not much more than that.

(Revised August 2014)