Vintage Movies: “The Ladykillers”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every Friday.

The Ladykillers (1955, 91 minutes)

The funniest British caper film ever, the original 1955 version of The Ladykillers (revisited in 2004 by the Coen brothers), begins with one of the oldest clichés in gangster cinema: criminals toting violin cases. Rather than machine guns, the luggage in question here is stuffed with £60 thousand in cash, stolen from an armored car by the five mysterious men renting a spare room in London from Mrs. Wilberforce (a sweet little old lady played by 77-year-old Katie Johnson).

Herbert Lom as Louis, looks (and sounds) like Yul Brynner and admits to disliking old ladies. Cecil Parker is a nervous Major Courtney, panicking in a phone booth when Mrs. Wilberforce, unknowingly carrying the loot in a large trunk, stops her taxi to brandish her umbrella at a man abusing a horse for eating fruit from his pushcart. Peter Sellers, as young East End tough Harry Robinson, notes after the uproar, “Within 10 minutes, Mrs. Wilberforce put three men out of business.” Danny Green is One-Round, the punch-drunk ex-boxer who dislikes being called “stupid.” And Alec Guinness, sporting an Alastair Sim-like, XXL set of false teeth, is Professor Marcus, the heist’s mastermind, on the verge of cracking under the strain.

Posing as a classical string quintet, the bungling gang pretends to rehearse at the spinster’s ramshackle house, perched on a cul de sac over a train line from King’s Cross station, whose constant rumble makes pictures in her house hang crooked. Once they’ve lugged the cello and violin cases up the stairs of “Mrs. Lopsided,” they cue up a record by classical composer Luigi Boccherini and hatch their plans.

Mrs. Wilberforce has a special relationship with the local police who patiently listen to her stories, then politely send her on her way. The coppers are only too happy to deliver her trunk, abandoned at the site of the horse and fruit-cart debacle, right to her front door. “The bogies brought it home for her,” a nonplussed Harry tells the Major.

With the getaway car running, it looks like a successful conclusion to the big caper, until One-Round gets his cello case snagged in Mrs. Wilberforce’s front door. “Ring the bell, stupid!” shouts Louis as the ex-pugilist gives the case a vicious yank. When the old lady opens the door, all the cash goes fluttering in the breeze—and the lightbulb finally goes on over her head.

The desperados try to convince her not to go to the police. “You carried the ‘lolly’ for us,” says Harry. “You’ll wind up sewing mail bags for the rest of your life.” But Mrs. Wilberforce is determined to do the right thing. The only way out, the gang reckons, is to bump off the old lady. But does anyone have the steely nerve to do the job?