Director: Alexander Mackendrick
By Marilyn Ferdinand
To my mind, the Ealing Studios movie The Ladykillers is the most perfect comedy ever made. I acknowledge cinema’s many great comedies, both light and dark, including Duck Soup, Buster Keaton’s The General, and Dr. Strangelove, and their claim to this title. But for me, there never was a comedic performance to equal Katie Johnson’s, whose little old lady not only cowed the robbery gang who used her crumbling old house as their headquarters, but also bested the greatest comedic actors of our time. That she doesn’t get top billing (and isn’t even listed on the box of my Korean DVD) is a crime, but her casting is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film—she was rejected for the role initially, but won it when the scheduled star died.
Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce (Johnson) is the very picture of the shabby-genteel Victorian widow. She lives in a house at least as old and crooked as she is at the end of a street, just above London’s King’s Cross train station. It appears that her urban neighborhood sprouted up around her, since she continues to behave as though she lives in a village. She moves efficiently down her block, greeting longtime shopkeepers by name and vagrants and other transients with polite hellos. When she reaches her destination, the local police station, she is granted the solicitude of the superintendant (Jack Warner), to whom she dutifully reports that an earlier complaint she had lodged with him had been a dreadful misunderstanding and that he should dedicate the no-doubt-considerable resources spent on her case in a more productive direction. Mumbling polite assurances and appreciation of her good citizenship, he ushers her to the door and hands her the umbrella she left at the station during her previous visit; musing on how she keeps leaving places without the umbrella, Mrs. Wilberforce confesses that she never much liked it.
Before returning to her home, Mrs. Wilberforce stops into the green grocer’s and asks if there have been any inquiries about her room-to-let notice on the bulletin board. Disappointed by the answer, Mrs. Wilberforce sighs. A spot of rain starts, and Mrs. Wilberforce opens her unloved umbrella and leaves just as a shadow, accompanied by appropriately sinister music (provided by Tristam Cary), falls over her to-let notice.
No sooner does Mrs. Wilberforce return home and start fussing with the menagerie of parrots her husband probably collected from the farflung corners to which he was posted while in the army, than a stranger with a mighty odd smile comes to her door inquiring about the rooms for rent. Delighted, she shows Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) in. Before they go upstairs to look at the available room, the Professor attempts to straighten a picture on her wall. Mrs. Wilberforce says the picture will never hang straight because the house is settling. Indeed, every picture, window jamb, and doorway defies the right angle. Still, when the Professor sees the view from his window—the train platform where steel payroll boxes are brought for transport each week—he snaps it up. He mentions that he is in an amateur string quintet and that the members of his group will be over frequently to practice. Mrs. Wilberforce, a music lover, is delighted.
The image of each member of the Professor’s gang coming by with violin cases and their variants tucked under their arms is a brilliant use of a cliché for comic effect. Of course, the gang runs the gamut of types: punchy ex-boxer “One Round” Lawson (Danny Green), refined, cowardly Major Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker), aging Teddy Boy Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers), and paranoid, switchblade-happy Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom). For his part, Guinness is the model of solicitude to Mrs. Wilberforce and rather touchy about suggestions that he might be mad—which, of course, he is. He has decided to include Mrs. Wilberforce as an unwitting accomplice to their robbery, surmising that her innocence, propriety, and utterly harmless countenance will help her bypass the checkpoints that will certainly go up once the robbery has been committed and smuggle the “lolly” out of the rail station, thinking it is a trunk for Major Courtney. The robbery goes off without a hitch, but once Mrs. Wilberforce learns what has happened, it’s lace curtains for the String Quintet Gang.
The Ladykillers plays with our assumptions about old women to both confound the bad guys and amaze us with its sly humor. Mrs. Wilberforce is neither as foolish as others think her to be nor as smart as a Miss Marple. Dressed in the same lavender suit throughout the film, she is like an ancient sachet whose sweet niceties and constant offers of tea (“or coffee if you prefer”) provide a cover for her nosiness. She’s perfectly willing to see and hear what she wants—suspecting nothing when she sees Mr. Robinson hold his violin in a manner unsuitable for playing and unable to discern a recording of Boccherini’s Minuet from live playing. And she’s definitely adept at using her age and gender to get what she wants, whether it is to have the Major chase after General Gordon (“the naughty one”) when he flies out the window or insist that the men behave properly in front of her cadre of lady friends, who are eager to meet new people, especially musicians.
Watching Mrs. Wilberforce bully these grown and disreputable men through the sheer force of her indignation about their theft is priceless. Unaccountably, when she tells them to put the money, which she has discovered by accident, in the drawing room where she will lock it up and guard it, they do. When they start to work on her to remain quiet about the robbery, Johnson’s growing alarm and confusion about her situation is a comic masterpiece of timing and physical humor; when they tell her she’ll be thrown in stir and made to sew mailbags if they’re all caught, the split-second edit of a close-up of her stunned and simple face uttering a single word, “Mailbags?”, had me falling on the floor. Eventually she gets tough herself, adopting their slang about remaining “buttoned up” and waiting in growing pique as one by one, the conspirators run from the task of bumping “Mrs. Lopsided” off and do each other in instead.
The comedy of The Ladykillers works because Johnson remains completely in character, a less-pompous Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers of the British screen. Herbert Lom is dazzlingly funny as a paranoic who is a self-confessed hater of old ladies and who predicts Mrs. Wilberforce will be their undoing, though, in fact, One-Round’s casual stupidity ruins the day. Peter Sellers is quite contained here, working with the ensemble instead of breaking out into the outrageous improvisations that would become his claim to fame. I felt quite sad when Green got it; it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the dumb one, especially when he becomes Mrs. Wilberforce’s protector. Parker is an excellent ninny and seems like a fish out of water in this group, so respectable-seeming and lily-livered. Guinness is the only actor to adopt goofy make-up, which creates a certain imbalance in the deadpan humor that dominates the film. Yet, he is clearly the smartest of the gang and is brilliantly correct that Mrs. Wilberforce will believe that she is hearing them playing their instruments instead a recording. Nonetheless, all the confederates are tied together by their greed and apparent failure to make a go of any other means of employment.
The film has a certain poignancy as well. Johnson has a short reverie about a memory from her girlhood that hearing the Minuet jogged. It makes me rather angry, as it did her, that so many people underestimate her and assume that everything she says is some kind of half-understood gossip or the onset of senility. Of course, she gets her due when a fabrication by the gang actually comes true. Her generosity with her windfall, and her realization that she doesn’t have to keep the umbrella she doesn’t like because she can now buy dozens of them, shows a woman whose honest naivete and zest for life have won the day.