Lionsgate // 1955 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 10th, 2010
Meet the unholy five!
"Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen."
The Old Lady (Katie Johnson, How to Murder a Rich Uncle) is a kind and decent woman, involved in her community and always trying to help those in need. Her husband has passed on, so now she just lives by herself with her pet parrot. She has some extras rooms in the house and she's hoping to rent them out to bring in a little extra money. One day, a man named Professor Marcus (Alec Guiness, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) knocks on her door. He claims to be a musician and an educated man; a truly refined citizen who would seem to be the perfect boarder. There's just one little request Professor Marcus wants to make: he's the conductor of a string quartet, and he'd like to know whether it's okay if his musician friends come over to practice every now and then.
The Old Lady is delighted by the prospect of having classical musicians practicing in her home and gladly grants the request. Alas, she doesn't know the full truth about the group. You see, Professor Marcus is a master criminal plotting the theft of 60,000 pounds, and the so-called "musicians" are actually his partners in crime.
I have to confess, I first became familiar with the basic plot of The Ladykillers via the 2004 Coen Brothers remake, a film I enjoyed despite the fact that it's clearly one of the Coens' lesser films and despite the fact that everyone who had seen the original insisted that the '55 version was a vastly superior effort. Given that the original was a prime-era Ealing comedy starring Alec Guiness, I wasn't surprised by such claims. I've had to pleasure of enjoying some of Guiness' other Ealing comedies, including The Man in the White Suit and the masterful Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I leapt at the opportunity to check out The Ladykillers via this lavish new Blu-ray release from Lionsgate's StudioCanal Collection. While I find the film perhaps a notch or two below the very best Ealing comedies, it remains a very amusing movie well worth checking out.
The plot is a very simple one that is neatly divided into two halves (minor spoiler ahead, but then the title is a bit of a spoiler, isn't it?). In the first half, Marcus and his gang plot and execute a very straightforward and uncomplicated heist. In the second half, The Old Lady discovers the villainy of her tenants, so the group hesitantly comes to the conclusion that they must send the dear woman to her eternal resting place.
Much of the humor during the first portion of the film comes from (A.) the sheer idiocy of the cover the thieves have chosen and (B.) the fact that The Old Lady is far too dense to see through such a nonsensical story. When these thieves gather at The Old Lady's house to discuss their plans, they all carry their cellos, violas and violins upstairs, put on a classical music record to convince The Old Lady that they are actually doing what they claim they are doing and then discuss the details of their plot. This is not a very sound plan; particularly when you consider that all of the thieves know absolutely nothing about music. The scenes in which The Old Lady enters the room and the thieves all awkwardly attempt to strike some sort of pose with their instruments remain endlessly entertaining little snapshots.
However, it's not until the second half that the comedy really starts to hit its stride. Though the movie has lost a bit of its controversial edge with age, the scenes in which these supposedly cold, hardened criminals demonstrate severe discomfort with the idea of offing this sweet woman remain darkly funny. No fair telling exactly what happens to who after that, but suffice it to say that the results are violently entertaining (in a 1955-ish way, of course...the film shys away from showing actual violence with a modesty not unlike that of The Old Lady herself).
The film's premise is honestly a little bit thin, so it's up to the actors to carry the movie through certain stretches. Thankfully, two of the players are more than up to the task. Katie Johnson is pitch-perfect as The Old Lady, veering between warmth and intense concern as the film proceeds yet maintaining an endearing cluelessness throughout it all. Her lack of ability to fully comprehend her situation is not rooted in a lack of intelligence but rather in the fact that she's simply too naïve for her own good. My favorite moment comes when she is forced to confront a police officer who pays her a friendly visit. I dare not spoil what happens in that scene, but it had me in stitches.
Alec Guinness is equally good as Professor Marcus, surely one of the oddest-looking characters Guiness has ever played (including some of the folks from Kind Hearts and Coronets). With some of the most amusingly obtrusive false teeth ever to appear on film and a hilariously gloomy appearance that frequently suggests The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Guiness fills every scene he appears in with a constant source of entertainment. His comic timing is typically impeccable, and he manages to make an unlikely character one of the film's most convincing. Special mention should be made of the masterful depiction of the Professor's entrance. Thanks to clever use of shadow, the character looks like no one so much as Jack the Ripper during the first few moments of the film.
The transfer is solid but not quite spectacular. Though The Ladykillers fails in comparison to other hi-def transfers of vintage films like The Wizard of Oz, it looks respectable enough. Detail tends to be somewhat inconsistent, as the image veers between being very sharp and surprisingly soft. There are a couple of moments where this seems to be intentional, however. The biggest issue here is the aspect ratio, which is 1.33:1 (full frame). The DVD release presented the film in 1.66:1, which IMDb also lists as the aspect ratio for the theatrical version. However, whether the film was shot in full frame and then cropped to 1.66:1 or vice versa is unclear. Just looking at what's presented on this disc, I suspect the former, but I'd love it if someone out there could enlighten me on the subject. Audio is adequate, seeming a little pinched and distorted from time to time but not terribly so. It's a pretty simple 2.0 track, getting the job done without really ever impressing in any significant way.
Where the disc really impresses is in the extras department, with in-depth features worthy of a top-tier Criterion release. First up is an excellent commentary with Ealing Expert Phil Kemp, who provides a lot of in-depth info on Ealing and the film. Then you've got a 50-minute documentary called "Forever Ealing" which chronicles their history, plus a featurette on the restoration of the film called "Cleaning Up the Ladykillers." In addition, there are video interviews with Allan Scott, Terence Davies and Ronald Harwood, an introduction from Terry Gilliam and a theatrical trailer. The packaging also lists an interview with James Mangold, but alas, it's nowhere to be found on the disc. Still, a great set of supplements overall.
Good as Sellers and Johnson are, I feel like supporting players are a bit too undercooked. They're all basically simplistic, one-joke characters that never really get to demonstrate much nuance. Even a young Peter Sellers doesn't really manage to make a big impression. It's not that the supporting players are bad; just that they aren't given enough material to work with.
A respectable vintage comedy gets a stellar Blu-ray release. It's by all means worth an upgrade. Here's hoping we see more of these high caliber StudioCanal releases soon!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated