I remember the first time we watched “The Ladykillers.”
For so long it was one of those Ealing Comedies you never expected to see on American television. But one day we happened upon it on the WGN schedule, and even though the copy was a bit worn, the brilliance of the 1955 comedy classic shone through.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “The Ladykillers” is the perfectly executed caper of five bank robbers posing as a string quintet whose plans for an ingenious heist go horribly awry with the unwitting interference of their genteel landlady. I know that it has a special resonance for you because it captures a familiar street view of the post-war London of barrow boys and the last vestiges of rationing from your youth.
A story of exquisite simplicity chockfull of the screwball and the macabre, the film has haplessness and coincidence combining to conspire to foil the five. (As a bogus quintet they have to throw a record on the turntable, but in an inspired comic touch, they only have a single recording. For days afterwards, Boccherini’s Minuet burrows in as a melodious earworm.) The script by William Rose, who said that he visualized the entire plot in a single night’s dream, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
The cast is tremendous. Alec Guinness slinks about as the thieves grotesque mastermind, Professor Marcus. The rest of the gang are a casting director‘s tour de force: Peter Sellers in his first breakout role as Harry, the jittery Teddy Boy; Danny Green as the kindhearted giant “One Round;” Herbert Lom as the oily, suspicious Louie; and Cecil Parker as urbane Major. But special mention must go to Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce. She reportedly was passed over initially for the part because of fears that she was too old and may not survive the filming. (A younger actress was cast; she died before filming commenced.) The film is buoyed by cameos from comedians such as Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor.
Two years later, Mackendrick directed the dark, atmospheric American classic “Sweet Smell of Success,“ which is especially laudable for James Wong Howe’s evocative black and white photography and penetrating performances from the formidable Burt Lancaster and the exquisite Tony Curtis. Amazingly, Mackendrick directed his last film in 1967. He left the industry, as Patricia Goldstone has written, after he “found himself spending more energy on making deals than on making films,” and taught filmmaking at the California Institute for the Arts for the next 25 years.
Since that first viewing we’ve seen “The Ladykillers” several times. Invariably, I’m grinning the whole way through, smiling in the moment while awaiting those particularly cherished scenes. Here is the original trailer for “The Ladykillers.” It doesn’t include our favorite line. (That’ll remain our oft-quoted joke.)
“The Ladykillers” is a great film and whenever I think about it I think about you and how much I love you.
Happy Mother’s Day,