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The Ladykillers

Alec Guinness stars as a criminal mastermind in one of the funniest and blackest of the comedies concocted during the heyday of London's Ealing Studios. In The Ladykillers (1955), Guinness leads a gang of cutthroats and bandits who, posing as a string quintet, plan their latest knavery from a rented room belonging to Mrs. Wilberforce, the sweetest little old lady this side of the Thames. Naive and daintily credulous, Mrs. Wilberforce becomes an unknowing accomplice in the gang's daring armed robbery of a money van. The crime is a success, but when Mrs. W. discovers what her dear string quintet has been up to, she has no choice but to report the naughtiness to her darling friends in the local constabulary. So the thugs have no choice but to silence her — permanently. Trouble is, they are so befuddled by their own incompetence and by the prim charms of the apple-cheeked widow that, in their various attempts to bump her off, they end up diminishing their own forces one by one.

Director Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit) reached a masterful apex of sorts with this wickedly hilarious movie's precise balance of situational comedy and stark murderous callousness, with help from the Oscar-nominated screenplay by William Rose (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). It's the cast, though, who stand out most here. Their characters are painted with the broad, familiar strokes of cartoon bad guys. Herbert Lom is Louis, the quick-tempered, fedora'd gangster. Lom's future Pink Panther partner Peter Sellers, in his first major screen role, is a chubby teddy boy. Danny Green's muscleman, "One-Round" Lawson, is a boyish dull-witted bruiser, and Cecil Parker is the stereotypical con man. But this is Alec Guinness' heist. In The Lavender Hill Mob he played a mousy bank clerk who masterminded the theft of millions in gold bullion. Here his sinister Prof. Marcus is a rat-faced, small-time crime lord, a tour de force pivot toward oily villainy for this most versatile of British actors. Guinness based his conception of Marcus on British actor Alastair Sim, constructing his characterization from the mouth outward with a set of false teeth that so dominate his features that he couldn't be anything other than an underworld maestro.

However, the highest raise of a pint must go to Katie Johnson, whose Mrs. Wilberforce, with her doilies and parrots and frayed Victorian finery, might be a live-action version of Granny from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. For her work in The Ladykillers she won the BAFTA Film Award for Best British Actress at the age of 77. One of the funniest scenes comes when the she subjects the five archcriminals to a tea and singalong with a parlor full of her little old lady friends. (By the way, also noteworthy is the music throughout, with its giddy variations of Boccherini's Minuet.) Jolly dark drollery from top to bottom.

*          *          *

Anchor Bay's DVD release of The Ladykillers, part of the Alec Guinness Collection, is another gorgeous transfer (anamorphic 1.66:1) of nearly flawless source material. The Technicolor tones are sharp and strong (minus one odd process shot in the master print) with excellent contrast and definition. Likewise the monaural DD 2.0 audio, while understandably a bit thin given its age, offers no reasons for complaint.

Rounding out the disc are the original American distribution trailer and an Alec Guinness Bio comprising three dozen click-through screen pages. Enclosed in an insert is an authoritative two-page essay on Ealing Studios and The Ladykillers by Quentin Tarantino's pal Rand Vossler. A French language track is available. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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