Why The Ladykillers is an all time classic

James Oliver

This severely underrated comedy is about to become your new favourite

The history books largely present Britain in the 1950s as a dull sort of place, which would be entirely understandable. The country had, after all, been through quite a lot during the preceding decade, what with war, privation and more besides. After all that, they could be forgiven for wanting to put their feet up, enjoy a nice cup of tea and wait for the Swinging Sixties.

Something similar happened in the film world too, alas. The great, radical spirit of the 1940s Golden Age gave way to a more stolid sort of cinema, anodyne and unchallenging. That's one of the reasons that The Ladykillers is so deserving of our attention, sticking out from that bland consensus like a sore thumb. Or maybe that should be, like a rusty nail.

It arrived in 1955 and it's celebrating its 65th anniversary with jelly, ice cream and re-releases galore. All that allows us to look a bit closer, to remind ourselves why it's so routinely called a classic.

Of course, a plot synopsis might help. It is a comedy about crime, even if the criminal element isn't immediately apparent at first, when we are introduced to Mrs. Wilberforce (Katy Johnson). She is the proverbial sweet, little old woman, eking out her days in a house that's seen better days and sometimes renting a room or two. 

"The Ladykillers was 'a fable', a 'comic and ironic joke about the condition of post-war England'"

One of those rooms is taken by Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), a musicologist looking for a place to rehearse his string quintet. Or so he tells her; in fact, he and his fellow “musicians”—Cecil Parker, Peter Sellars, Herbert Lom and Danny Green—are actually crooks, planning a dangerous heist. This they carry out with only a few hitches and they think they're home and dry. Which they are, until Mrs W discovers the truth. What can they do except bump her off before she goes to the rozzers? That, though, will prove easier said than done.

By the mid-1950s, few film studios in the UK would have considered attempted murder a suitable subject for comedy—this, after all, was the era when Norman Wisdom was beginning his reign of terror. Luckily for us, Michael Balcon, paterfamilias of Ealing Studios was made of sterner stuff. A few years earlier, Ealing had made Kind Hearts and Coronets, an even more murderous comedy that stuck a stiletto through the heart of conventional good taste, and had made other films with a similarly mischievous edge, collectively known as the “Ealing Comedies”.

The Ladykillers was directed by a chap called Alexander Mackendrick. Although he'd been raised in Scotland, he was actually born in New York (where his parents had briefly emigrated) and he always claimed this gave him an outsider's perspective on the UK. Certainly he had a distinctive vision; he'd begun directing with the twee Whiskey Galore! but went on to reveal a more subversive streak in things like The Man In The White Suit and The Maggie, two of the very few high points of British film in the 1950s.

The story for The Ladykillers was dreamed up by writer William Rose—quite literally, in fact: it came to him as a dream. Mackendrick sensed its potential and helped Rose knock his nocturnal notion into something more screenworthy, with characters and gags and everything (originally they had in mind Alastair Sim to star; when Guinness took over, he based his performance on the blessed Sim).

Rose had been born overseas too. He was an American (actually raised there, unlike the Glasgow bred Mackendrick), who'd come to Britain in the war and stayed after meeting a local lass. While they worked on the script, they obviously concentrated on writing the best scenario they could, but in later years Mackendrick realised they'd done something else too.

In his (much recommended) book On Filmmaking, Mackendrick wrote that The Ladykillers was “a fable”, a “comic and ironic joke about the condition of post-war England” as it faced up to new realities, the loss of Empire and dissatisfaction with the old social order. The characters here are deeply symbolic: Cecil Parker, for instance, plays “the Major”, a conman who is “a caricature of the decadent military class” while Peter Sellers' wide-boy is “the spiv, the worthless younger generation” (there was much concern about them at this time).

“The tiny figure of Mrs Wilberforce,” he wrote, “is plainly a much-diminished Britannia. Her house  is […] shabby and cluttered with memories of the days when Britain's navy ruled the world.” It is “structurally unsound...an anachronism in the contemporary world.” But all is not lost. “Bill Rose's sentimental hope for the country that he and I saw through fond but sceptical eyes was that it might still, against all logic, survive its enemies.”

It's probably a spoiler to note that Mrs Wilberforce does not succumb to her enemies. Ealing, alas, were not so lucky. The Ladykillers turned a decent profit—Alec Guinness was a huge star—but elsewhere things were changing too fast for the studio: television had arrived, and people weren't going to the pictures so often. Worse, those audiences who weren't staying at home had developed a bewildering affection for Norman Wisdom. 

The Ladykillers was the last of the Ealing comedies, and (just about) their last film of any significance. It burns like a beacon amidst the dull tedium of British cinema in the 1950s, a glorious exception to a tiresome rule.

The restored anniversary edition of The Ladykillers is available now on Blu Ray and DVD

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