Directed by Alexander Mackendrick and written by William Rose, The Ladykillers is the story of a gang of bandits who move into the home of an old lady as they’re planning a heist. Things go wrong when the old lady suspects something is happening as they would later plot a plan to get rid of her. Starring Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner, and Katie Johnson. The Ladykillers is a witty black comedy from Alexander Mackendrick.
Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) is an old lady who lives alone with her three parrots as she has rooms available for people to rent. Answering her ad for rooms available is a man named Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) who wants to rent her rooms for a while as he is also bringing in friends to rehearse for an upcoming concert. Mrs. Wilberforce is delighted by the company as Marcus along with Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers), an ex-boxer named “One-Round” Lawson (Danny Green), and a mysterious man named Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom) all move in. Yet, what Mrs. Wilberforce doesn’t know is that these five men are planning a heist as Marcus looks out at a car near King’s Cross that transports money to the train.
Despite dealing with Mrs. Wilberforce’s presence and her parrots, the men realize that she could be useful in the heist by picking up the trunk where the money will be stashed though she has no idea what she’s doing. Despite a few mishaps, the heist becomes a major success as all five men decide to leave Mrs. Wilberforce’s home until something goes wrong where Mrs. Wilberforce becomes suspicious. When her friends arrive for a tea party as all five men reluctantly attend the party only to deal with Mrs. Wilberforce who has decided what to do. With Mrs. Wilberforce suddenly in control, Marcus and the four men decide to take matters into their own hands as guilt and greed starts to surround them.
The film is a black comedy about five devious men who plan a heist where they would include an old lady who becomes an unknowing player in this heist. Just as things seem to go well, a simple mistake would ruin everything leading to this old lady to try and deal with them in a calm, civil manner where the five men would fight over whether or not to kill her. It’s a film about many things, notably greed, guilt, and doing what is right. Leading all of this is a man named Marcus who is the ringleader that sports a smile that really spells trouble. He heads a gang of four very different men that includes a gentlemanly con artist, a young Cockney criminal, a dim-witted ex-boxer, and a mysterious gangster who finds the old lady’s presence to be very distracting.
William Rose’s screenplay is well-structured for the way each act is set-up as the first act is about the planning of the heist, charming Mrs. Wilberforce, and the heist itself. The second act is about Mrs. Wilberforce’s discovery and how she would try to deal with the matter as it would include an encounter with a young police sergeant (Philip Stainton). Then comes this very interesting third act where it’s all about the five men and how they want to deal with Mrs. Wilberforce where it eventually becomes a battle over morality and money. While Marcus and the four other men, with the exception of the more devilish Harvey, aren’t totally despicable men. Marcus, in his sly charm, is willing to try and settle things for Mrs. Wilberforce in case there isn’t a need for violence while Courtney and Lawson feel that killing an old lady doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Robinson is a petty thief but at least knows this old lady isn’t a total threat.
This would leave Harvey who is a criminal that takes the job because of the big payday but has to deal with this old lady as he becomes more out there in the third act with very dark motives. This would force a battle of wits between him and Marcus and in the middle of this is Mrs. Wilberforce. While this old lady is just a kind old lady who often visit the police station to discuss whatever matters is happening around town while just wanting to do good. She isn’t a total dimwit as the men think she is though she is aware that what she just did is wrong and tries to set things right leading to a great sense of conflict between her and Marcus. It’s a very intense yet engaging screenplay that William Rose creates as it is told with some wonderful humor that is dark yet has a great payoff in the end.
Alexander Mackendrick’s direction is truly a joy to watch in the way he creates the conversations and charade that occurs throughout the film. While a lot of the compositions are straightforward, he does allow the chance to build up a bit of suspense in the set-up of the heist. Notably as it would often include some humorous moments of the men pretending to carry their musical instruments whenever they have to deal with Mrs. Wilberforce. There’s a lot of funny moments where there’s a lot happening such as a scene where Mrs. Wilberforce in her taxi carrying the luggage where a ruckus happens in the middle of the street. In that scene, Marcus and his men are watching what is happening not knowing if things are going to go well or bad.
Mackendrick also manages to keep the tense moments quiet, notably in the third act as the men have to deal with Mrs. Wilberforce while there is still some very funny moments. Notably as it would involve a lot of double-cross and devious moments involving the criminals as they start to target each other when a few are unwilling to get rid of Mrs. Wilberforce. These scenes would include lots of dark, funny moments that involves trains and all sorts of things while its ending is a purely joyful and humorous one. Overall, Mackendrick creates a truly splendid yet entertaining dark comedy.
Cinematographer Otto Heller does an excellent job with the film‘s Technicolor look of the film that is heightened for many of the film‘s daytime exteriors while maintaining a rich look to some of the locations such as King‘s Cross and the home of Mrs. Wilberforce. Heller’s work in the nighttime exteriors, notably its third act, is truly exquisite for the tone it brings to complement its look. Editor Jack Harris does a nice job with the editing by helping to build suspense in some of the film‘s tense moments along with some rhythmic cuts to play up the humor. Art director Jim Morahan does a brilliant job with the look of Mrs. Wilberforce’s home in its interior settings as well as some of the props made for the film.
Costume designer Anthony Mendleson does some excellent work with the costumes such as the array of stylish suits to complement the differing personalities of the bandits as well as the stately yet casual look of Mrs. Wilberforce. Sound editor Gordon Stone does terrific work with the sound from the way Mrs. Wilberforce gets the water pump started to the sounds of trains chugging nearby her home. The film’s music score by Tristram Cary is a delight to hear from the chime-like music box theme to some of the chilling orchestral pieces to play up its suspense. The film’s music also consists of Boccherini’s Minuet (3rd Movement) from String Quartet in E Op. 11 No. 5 that adds to the film’s humorous moments.
The film’s ensemble cast is definitely amazing as it includes appearances from Frankie Howerd as an angry barrow boy, Kenneth Connor as the taxi driver who drives Mrs. Wilberforce for the job, Philip Stainton as a police sergeant who questions Mrs. Wilberforce late in the film, and Jack Warner as the kind police superintendent whom Mrs. Wilberforce always talk to. Danny Green is funny as the dim-witted boxer One-Round whose strength does wonders for the team while goes into conflict over what needed to be done in the third act. Cecil Parker is very good as the gentlemanly Major Courtney who tries to keep things civil while being kind towards Mrs. Wilberforce. Herbert Lom is superb as the devilish and aggressive Harvey who tries to keep things going while wanting to get rid of Mrs. Wilberforce.
In an early film role, Peter Sellers is very good as the young thief Robinson where Sellers sports a Cockney accent while dealing with Mrs. Wilberforce’s presence and eventually take part in a series of double-crosses that is prominent in the third act. Alec Guinness is brilliant as the devious Marcus who tries to charm Mrs. Wilberforce as he sports these ridiculous teeth that plays to his personality as it’s a very funny role from Guinness. The film’s best performance goes to Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce as she brings a light-hearted approach to her character as it’s very relaxed performance of a character who tries to be so nice only to be part of something unfortunate.
The Ladykillers is an extraordinary film from Alexander Mackendrick that features top-notch performances from Alec Guinness and Katie Johnson. Along with a great supporting cast that includes Peter Sellers along with some amazing technical work. The film is definitely one of the finest comedies to ever come out from Britain. Notably as it’s very dark due to the actions some of the characters do but is presented in a manner that is pretty funny. In the end, The Ladykillers is a smart yet comical film from Alexander Mackendrick.
Alexander Mackendrick Films: (Whisky Galore!) - (The Man in the White Suit) - (Mandy) - (The Maggie) - Sweet Smell of Success - (Sammy Going South) - (A High Wind in Jamaica) - (Don’t Make Waves)
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