Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob, made in 1951, is one of the legendary Ealing comedies starring Alec Guinness. It’s also notable as an early example of the caper movie.

Alec Guinness is Holland, a mild-mannered bank employee whose job is to supervise the shipment of gold bullion from the refinery to the bank. Holland has always nursed the dream of stealing the gold but his problem is that safely disposing of stolen bullion in England would be virtually impossible. His problem is solved when Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) movies into the same private hotel. Pendlebury manufactures souvenirs. Souvenirs cast from lead. It occurs to Holland that someone who has the means of casting lead could just as easily cast gold. His plan starts to take shape. The stolen bullion will be melted down and cast into souvenir Eiffel Tower models which Pendlebury’s form ships to Paris. This is how they will get the gold out of England.

Of course these two can’t carry out the robbery on their own. They devise an ingenious plan to recruit some professional thieves and the Lavender Hill Mob comes into being when they find burglars Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass).

While the heist itself is entertaining the real fun begins after the robbery when a series of comic misadventures befall the gang and they find themselves desperately trying to retrieve gold Eiffel Towers which have been sold by mistake to a party of English schoolgirls.

The fun really is non-stop. There are some truly inspired moments, the scenes on the Eiffel Tower (the real Eiffel Tower) being a highlight.

The gang members are just about the most likeable film crooks you’ll ever encounter. You desperately want them to get away with the robbery. They’re not exactly bumbling thieves. Their plan is a good one and they carry it out skillfully. They just have an awful lot of terribly bad luck in ways they could not possibly have anticipated. The fact that they’re not complete idiots and that they’re really quite resourceful makes the humour less obvious and more effective, and it makes the audience even more sympathetic. After all they go through surely they deserve to end up with the million pounds!

I’ve never been much of an Alec Guinness fan but he really is splendid in this one. All four gang members in fact are superb. The supporting cast members provide plenty of enjoyment, especially the two old ladies in the private hotel. Marjorie Fielding is a delight as Mrs Chalk, a keen fan of pulp detective novels whose knowledge of American underworld slang is encyclopedic. Also look out for a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by a pre-stardom Audrey Hepburn.

Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke apparently got assistance from several Bank of England employees to ensure that his idea for the heist really was workable. The effort he put into the clever and very witty script paid off handsomely - he won an Oscar for it.

Director Charles Crichton had a successful career in film before moving on to an even more successful career in television. The Lavender Hill Mob demonstrates his flair for both comedy and action. It also features a rather inspired car chase.

This movie is easily obtainable on DVD just about anywhere and is available on Blu-Ray as well.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Highly recommended.

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