With apologies to the Coen brothers, Ealing got it right the first time

With apologies to the Coen brothers, Ealing got it right the first time

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men has us fondly recalling other movies about groups, teams, squads, and merry collectives.

The Ladykillers (1955)

Arguably the finest of Ealing Studios’ illustrious comedies, The Ladykillers proves a boisterous caper of ironic black humor. In London, little old lady Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), finds a tenant for her rented room: Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), who wants to use it as practice space for his string quartet. Excited by the prospect of having musicians for boarders, Mrs. Wilberforce happily accepts Marcus into her home. Little does she know that he and his crew—uptight Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), fidgety Mr. Robinson (Peter Sellers), cold-blooded Mr. Harvey (Herbert Lom), and lunkheaded goliath Mr. Lawson (Danny Green)—are in fact thieves set on using her home as part of their elaborate scheme to rob an armored car. Their plan is simple: after snatching the loot in broad daylight, they’ll stash the money in a trunk and send it to the train station, where under the careful watch of the police, the innocent-looking Mrs. Wilberforce will easily retrieve it, claiming it for her musician friend.

The buildup to and orchestration of that heist is staged with expert aplomb by director Alexander Mackendrick (The Sweet Smell Of Success), whose camerawork glides around both interior and exterior spaces with sinister grace. His steady stewardship is the unsung key to The Ladykillers, expertly balancing the raft of loony personalities—and the mounting trickiness of their situation—once Marcus and company pull off their crime, but find, thanks to one unforeseen bit of “the human element,” that getting Mrs. Wilberforce home won’t be as simple as hoped. The last act’s spiraling comedic shenanigans, all involving the thieves’ attempts to permanently silence a now-clued-in Mrs. Wilberforce, are of a droll slapstick variety. Aided by William Rose’s sharp script, it’s a classic of sterling performances, highlighted by a young Sellers’ childish attempts to practice twirling and firing a gun, and the earlier sight of the peerless Guinness—his face pale, his teeth unnaturally large, his smile suggesting madness—going bug-eyed, while trying to pull his scarf out from beneath Mrs. Wilberforce’s feet.

Availability: The Ladykillers is available on Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained from Netflix) and to rent or purchase through the major digital providers.