They’re ‘The Men Who Broke the Bank and Lost the Cargo!’ Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway shine in one of the funniest crime comedies ever, Ealing Studios’ tale of a pair of nobodies who take the Bank of England for millions. Guinness’s bank clerk follows his dreams into a big time bullion heist, and the joke is that his ad-hoc mob is the most loyal, ethical band of brothers in the history of crime. This being a caper picture, the suspense is steep as well — just what is going to trip up these brilliantly gifted amateurs?
The Lavender Hill Mob
KL Studio Classics
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 81 min. / Street Date September 3, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sidney James, Alfie Bass, Audrey Hepburn.
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Film Editor: Seth Holt
Original Music: Georges Auric
Written by T.E.B. Clarke
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by Charles Crichton
Kino Lorber’s Studio Canal connection must be the Blu-ray licensing coup of the decade — assuming the deal has legs, the company’s vast holdings could introduce U.S. fans to a new world of rare European delights, in addition to prime quality encodings of our favorites.
The Lavender Hill Mob was a popular hit in America; before Peter Sellers, the delightful Alec Guinness made a big name here as a comedian in droll, sometimes sardonic farces from the Ealing Studios. As disc commenter Jeremy Arnold contends, this may not be the most sophisticated Ealing comedy attraction, but it’s probably the best starting point for newbies.
Several Ealing pictures show enterprising Englishmen turning to crime, the way you or I might adopt a hobby. Meek bank clerk Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) dreams of robbing his firm’s bullion shipment van. He escorts the single van on weekly trips across London, and has a reputation for detail that tries the patience of the driver-guards. Henry’s ambition comes to fruition when he meets souvenir manufacturer Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), whose smelting facility mirrors that of the Royal Mint. Since Alfred manufactures numerous tchotchkes sold abroad, he becomes the missing link in Henry’s wicked plan — together they will smuggle the loot out of the country. For this they need a pair of confederates, so they eagerly enlist the aid of street crooks Lackery (Sidney James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass), who turn out to be jolly good partners in crime. The heist of the century is afoot!
The Lavender Hill Mob could be the brightest, sweetest caper comedy ever. It comes right at the beginning of the ‘serious’ side of the subgenre of crime films dedicated to single all-or-nothing robbery schemes: John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle had only been out a year. The scenes showing the dispatching of Henry Holland’s bullion van are similar to scenes in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross, a romantic noir of several years previous, which also centered on an armored car holdup.
Although what we see is convincingly realistic, the hardboiled context has become frivolous, almost giddy — Lavender is a satire that respects its source. Ealing comedies love to place anarchic story ideas within the ultra-civilized English landscape. In the hands of director Charles Crichton (Dead of Night, The Stranger in Between) the credible/silly equation finds a perfect balance between criminal audacity and English understatement.
The Walter Mitty-like Henry reads crime fiction with his elderly landlady, so his head is apparently packed with daydreams of crime and glory. He and accomplice Stanley Holloway are like two boys discovering how much fun it is to be bad. The main advertising image is not a crime scene, but the two of them happily hugging each other. What joy, pretending to be hardened criminals: “Call me Dutch!” It’s fun just to see the big grin of satisfaction on Henry’s face. His superiors don’t consider him capable of breaking a routine, let alone robbing the mint. He discovers the magic quality of being a social nonentity: no matter what crazy thing he does, society is too complacent to notice.
T.E.B. Clarke’s coy screenplay uses a little narration to set things up, but mostly relies on brilliant visual storytelling. Scenes jump in response to audio clues, keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. A somber shot of commuters on the march shows us the daily grind that Henry wishes to escape. Pendlebury’s modest smelting outfit is introduced through actions that equate it with the official mint: in each location, Henry flicks a speck of molten metal from his boot back. The gold smelting scenes celebrate good work well rewarded. When the cops say they’re looking for desperate criminals, Crichton cuts to a grinning Henry, lit from below by the molten gold he’s pouring into a mold. He and his cronies are the happiest mob in London.
The actual bullion robbery is deceptively simple. The mint doesn’t use much security for such a fortune in ingots, promoting the pro-tourism notion that crime is all but unknown in England. When Henry makes redundant safety checks during the transport, his guards must stifle the urge to tell him he’s an idiot. That anal-retentive reputation pays off later — nobody, not even the lead detective on the case (John Gregson of Pursuit of the Graf Spee) thinks for a second that the meek Holland could be an inside man.
T.E.B. Clarke’s actual smuggling plan — disguising the form of the gold for covert export — is top notch, so simple that nobody would guess it without first connecting a lot of dots. A more outlandish version of the same idea figures in the later American crime noir Plunder Road (1957), a film that Ian Fleming likely plundered for his 1959 book Goldfinger, where the idea becomes absurd. English viewers were likely charmed by Henry’s inspirational daydream of how to defeat Britain’s stiff monetary and tax controls — black-market smuggling was common in 1950 England, because wartime austerity and rationing still hadn’t fully lifted.
Lavender stays true to the tenet of the classic caper film: the important thing is not the cleverness of the crime, but what the thieves do when things go wrong. Although Henry’s mob doesn’t turn against itself, as in Ealing’s The Ladykillers, it’s still the ‘human element’ that gums up the works. French sales agents are a problem, but nobody can predict the havoc potential of little English schoolgirls. Those frustratingly uncooperative monsters are a plague upon the land.
Although we are frequently reminded how small was the Ealing Studios unit, The Lavender Hill Mob is a finely crafted item. The camerawork is exceedingly fluid. The cutting of the police chases in a convention hall and on the streets, is faster and more dynamic than comparable scenes in Hollywood pictures. A beautiful split screen shot is used to show two radio-dispatched cop cars crashing head-on into each other, while Henry Holland broadcasts confusing information over the radio in the car he and Pendlebury have stolen.
On top of that are the film’s locations in Paris, and clever rear projection that makes their descent in one of the Eiffel Tower’s helical staircases look like a mad chase in a pinball machine. Like little boys spinning to make themselves dizzy, they can’t stand up straight when they reach the bottom. Even with unique effects like that, I understand that Ealing Studios were actually very inexpensive. Despite their relative success, the economics of the British film industry didn’t bring the company great riches.
Guinness and Holloway’s marvelous comic performances are aided by two more experts in comic understatement. Sidney James (A Kid for Two Farthings, Trapeze, Quatermass 2) has a marvelous deadpan attitude; with fake teeth he could play Alfred E. Neuman as a middle-aged man. A small guy with a sweet personality, Alfie Bass (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Alfie) also plays straight man to Guinness’s star performance. Screenwriter Clarke subverts the usual jealousies and double-crosses within the gang. Lackery and Shorty prove that there is honor among thieves, along with a warm slice of ‘hail-fellow-well-met.’
We stop smiling only when we realize that, even in England, no movie is going to allow these jovial thieves a clean getaway. The film’s clever flashback structure would seem borrowed from Ealing’s more cynical hit Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not to show my own cynicism, but the opening flashback bookend is a bald cheat! Since it’s a rank spoiler, I’ll explain below, in smaller text.
We can indeed see Audrey Hepburn in an early bit in the very first scene. Who would have believed that the svelte beauty, the celebrated ‘wisp of a girl,’ had weathered a rough childhood in Occupied Europe. Ms. Hepburn already looks as if she’d been a star for years. Although the Ealing comedy tradition would fade a few years later, director Crichton’s career continued. After Burt Lancaster dismissed him from Birdman of Alcatraz, Crichton began to accrue more TV credits. But a quarter-century later, he made an impressive international comeback in A Fish Called Wanda, a zany caper comedy with one toe in the Ealing tradition. He was 78 years old during filming.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Lavender Hill Mob is a great transfer of this wholly entertaining show. It’s another Brit import that previously appeared on DVD with less-than-perfect audio. Picture and sound are now flawless. As with most Studio Canal- sourced English discs, the Brit censor card is right up front.
The disc carries an intro by Martin Scorsese, who basically says ‘it’s a great movie!’ to an audience that’s already paid to see it. Vintage extras give us an audio interview with Charles Crichton, and a funny TV show appearance by T.E.B. Clarke, who happily recounts his delinquent youthful days. Adding very much to the film’s enjoyment is a feature audio commentary by colleague & author Jeremy Arnold, who covers all bases re: Ealing, Guinness and the filmmakers, while expressing a genuine affection for the picture.
Arnold mentions ‘lesser’ Ealing Studios productions that aren’t shown here much — I’d particularly like to see Charles Crichton’s Hue and Cry, which may have launched the classic comedy Ealings, and Passport to Pimlico, which I’ve only seen in ragged copies.
Spoiler: A pair of handcuffs figure strongly in the closing flashback bookend. Although they’re out of sight at the beginning of the movie, Henry and his friend’s forearms are simply not close enough for the handcuffs to be in use … you’ll see what I mean. Call the movie police! Obviously, a lot of 1951 theater admissions need to be refunded, with interest.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Lavender Hill Mob
Supplements: Audio commentary by Jeremy Arnold; intro by Martin Scorsese; Mavis Nicholson interviews Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke on TV’s Good Afternoon show; audio interview with Charles Crichton; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson