Now that there’s a new team at Ealing Studios, using an illustrious old name to sell underweight product (St Trinian’s, Dorian Gray, Burke and Hare) it’s a good time to look back at 1955’s The Ladykillers, the last classic of the studio’s golden era. Its director, Alexander Mackendrick, also called the shots on Whisky Galore! in 1949 and The Man In The White Suit in 1951 and would go on to make one of America’s most rancidly brilliant satires, The Sweet Smell of Success.
But here the accent is definitely on the sweet smell of lavender water, as a group of robbers, led by Alec Guinness’s caterpillar-browed Professor Marcus, first fool an old lady into believing they’re a string quintet – who would suspect them of plotting a bank job? – before they fall out over how to do her in. Chaucer used the basic plot as one of his Canterbury Tales but the atmosphere here is pure 1950s Britain, a world of ration-book austerity and deference but with the smell of something new in the air – the “looking after number one” attitude of the 1960s. Ealing regularly pulled off this sort of trick – the collision of fuddy-duddy Britannia with go-getting modern Britain – and they usually delivered it with such finesse that each constituency came out of the cinema thinking their side had won. That’s clever, the genius of Ealing, in fact. Let’s hope the new Ealing guys are taking notes.
© Steve Morrissey 2010