By 1955 when The Ladykillers was released under the Ealing comedies banner the studio had established itself with a load of brilliant films in the genre putting the Michael Balcon studios on the map for ever more. Bizarrely it was a film that had been dreamt up by screenwriter William Rose. Literally. The story was a dream that he had had and was almost fully formed which he then transcribed into script form which he worked on with director Alexander Mackendrick. The director had previously helmed Whiskey Galore and The Man in the White Suit but the pair would fall out spectacularly over the script with Rose leaving the production. It was a mistake he greatly regretted even though he got a screen credit and apologized to Mackendrick after seeing the complete film acknowledging what an excellent job the director had done although it was Rose who ended up with an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
The Ladykillers follows the capers of a group of small time crooks taking on an unlikely adversary in the form of a sweet yet slightly dotty elderly landlady. The seedy group of villains are planning a security van robbery and rent a room from Mrs Wilberforce the landlady in her rickety end a cul-de-sac Victorian house next to King’s Cross station from which to base their operation. To conceal their true purpose they pose as a string quartet even though they can’t play a note and have to mime to a record. The gang pull off the robbery but none of them could have predicted that their greatest obstacle to escaping with the loot would be the tiny landlady.
The film had a uniformly excellent cast all at the top of their game and led by Alec Guinness (who had proved his brilliance in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets‘ and another great Ealing comedy) in a role that had been intended for Alistair Sim so much so that Guinness even pointed out that it was a role best played by Sim until the producers admitted that he’d been unavailable and so Guinness slyly had himself made up to look like him adding Sim’s mannerisms to play the rather creepy role of Professor Marcus. His gang of thieves included Peter Sellers who at the time was starting to emerge as a comedy genius off the back of The Goons radio show. Add to this would be Herbert Lom who would find fame with Sellers in the Pink Panther films as the, driven to melting point’ boss of Inspector Clouseau. Rounding out the gang were Cecil Parker and Danny Green as respectively a fake Colonel and a Heavy. But their nemesis would be Katie Johnson as Mrs Wilberforce who was 77 years old at the time and it was her age that very almost lost her the role with the studio having difficulty to find an underwriter willing to insure her for the production. Having been acting since 1932 she had never really made it and the film would see her finally in a break our role. It was not to last as it was to be her penultimate film. The film also sees an early appearance from Frankie Howard in the unlikely role as an irate barrow boy.
The Ladykillers is one of the best and certainly favourite film of Ealing comedy fans and rightly so this new release of the film celebrates its 65th anniversary with a 4K restoration. It was the last film to be made using the Technicolor three film strip process which saw the negative combining the three colour separation to produce the colour image and the disc offers the viewer two size of aspect ratio (1.37:1 & 1.66:1) to watch the film. This commemorative edition has a huge number of bonus features that includes a CD soundtrack of scores from the Ealing comedies, a 64 page booklet and 6 Pop Art postcards. On the discs themselves there’s a new documentary with a number of film fans including Reece Shearsmoith of No 9 & League of Gentlemen fame. There’s also a commentary with author Phillip Kemp and a documentary from 1986 narrated by Daniel Day Lewis who is the grandson of Michael Balcon the giant behind the genius of Ealing Studios. Most interesting is two audio interviews with 1st Assistant Director Tom Pevsner and production manager David Peers – now if you’re not familiar with the two roles they really are the lynch pin of any film production and they both have a wealth of really interesting behind the scenes stories that make their input into the film well worth a listen. Add to this a featurette about the actual locations used by an enthusiastic presenter and there’s also the usual extras of a trailer and stills and even a spoof trailer that Sellers himself put together on set to entertain his colleagues.
The film was remade by the Coen Brothers in 2004 with Tom Hanks and relocated to the US. It was a rare misfire for the duo Coens but if you’ve never seen any of the Ealing comedies then the 1955 original is undoubtedly the one to get you into them. Brilliant at every level it is essential viewing and a definite must buy.
Here’s The Ladykillers trailer…….
THE LADYKILLERS IS OUT ON DVD, BLU-RAY & UHD ON 9TH NOVEMBER 2020