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Top 20: 'The Ladykillers'

by Conor Hufton 4 years ago in review
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You might need some Ealing time after this. Sorry.

Those ladies certainly were killers weren’t they? They were not, that is not at all the plot of this film.

An Ealing studios production in which Criminals lodge with an unsuspecting elderly woman while plotting a robbery. Hilarity ensues. Every layer of potential this premise offers is fully weaponised.

The varied personalities of the ensemble cast lead by Alec Guinness and featuring the then relatively unknown Peter Sellers in an early supporting role are endlessly entertaining with their mismatched nature expectedly being the reason. The film is forceless in its presentation of London criminals as eccentric and semi incompetent but nonetheless ultimately dangerous. More surprising is even with the film isn’t directed by Guy Ritchie. If conspiracy theorists wish to argue that it actually was, feel free. The personalities of the cast are well defined and consistent.

The film is subtly stylish, showing a wide range of costumes for a wide range of characters and a pleasing colour technicolour effect that works well with the general tone. There was probably little choice at the time, but this turns out to be a positive. The lighting of the final scenes are particularly engaging and fitting.

The most impressive performance is Katie Johnson whose portrayal of an eccentric well-meaning old woman who proves an obstacle to a group of gangsters is endlessly immersive and realistic. The fact she was an old woman in real life was probably helpful, but her mannerisms are eerily convincing and natural.

The physical humour of the film is subtle and naturally occurring. It shows a lot of attention to detail where incidents enhance a scene e.g. Alec Guinness smugly and inappropriately jiving to classical music that’s being played to maintain the pretence he and his cohorts are musicians. A later scene shows the old lady repeatedly stepping on his long coat when he attempts to move away and the gradual annoyance in his reactions. The dialogue is natural and effectively simplistic with several scenes humanising the criminals by showing their vulnerabilities and confusion when reacting to unexpected situations e.g an uncontrollable parrot.

The plot is at times genuinely tense and endlessly unpredictable, despite being a comedy. Inevitable events unfold in surprising and uniquely comical ways. The flow of the film is perfect, with the correct amount of time spent on character introductions, the excitement of the heist itself (which cleverly is successful—with the aftermath being the source of problems), the conflict between the cast, the resolution and the fallout all being perfectly synchronised.

Later scenes plausibly evolve into thriller territory while maintaining an un-invasive sense of humour. There is an infectious sense of energy throughout the film that never feels forced. An extremely praiseworthy element of the writing is that while indisputably a black comedy, the tone is constantly accessible and avoids gratuitous ultraviolence or unnecessary shock value driven cruelty—a real challenge when working with this genre. The heightened but investing sense of reality and the periphery between threat and relief makes it unsurprising that the Coen Brother’s directed an inferior but in my opinion unnecessarily slated remake in 2004.

It’s a hard to film to come up with legitimate criticism for, it definitely hasn’t dated like a film of this age might have, the plot and humour is timeless. It’s possible that some of the titular Ladykillers are underwritten but not enough for this to be fully noticeable. It’s arguably there isn’t a lot of emotion in the film, while tension is clearly present very few scenes are upsetting or outwardly moving. However, this is justified due to the fact many of the characters are criminals and by the fact that any emotions other than the ones present would seem forced or even misplaced in what aims to exclusively be a comedy with occasional suspense.

The Ladykillers is a concisely written film with an intriguingly unique yet simple premise that explores the black comedy genre with unlimiting restraint, solid performances, and well character types.

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About the author

Conor Hufton

getting better at this writing thing (aka slowly learning the alphabet, learnt how to use pen). Spanning critical writing, fantasy, parody and sci-fi (ruining all of them in the process).

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