Stories about the perfect crime going wrong (e.g., Double Indemnity) have long been a staple of fiction and film. Crime comedies, too, are nearly as old as film itself. But the genre of the caper-gone-wrong crime comedy may have been invented circa 1950 in Britain’s Ealing Studios, best known for its quirky comedies of the postwar years.
Some of Ealing’s classic comedies were drolly subversive crime stories, and some of them featured Alec Guinness. Three films met all these criteria: Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Ladykillers.
Each of these films is excellent, and each has its defenders as the best of Ealing’s crime comedies. Probably the most popular today is the first, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and certainly it is the darkest and most subversively satirical, with its story of a disgruntled distant heir to a peerage (Dennis Price) methodically killing every relative (all played by Guinness) that stands between him and the title. Perhaps it was a bit too dark for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which selected the The Lavender Hill Mob for the 1995 Vatican list of selected important films.
The Lavender Hill Mob is the most universal of the three, focusing as it does not on heirs to nobility or two-bit criminals, but on an ordinary, seemingly upstanding citizen, a conscientious Bank of London employee named Henry Holland (Guinness) whose duties include overseeing shipments of gold bullion. Over the years Holland has been doing two things: earning the trust of bank brass, and searching for a way to liquidate the gold he oversees after stealing it.
Nearly all of us, even the most honest, notice from time to time how vulnerable the systems and institutions around us are to fraud, theft, and abuse. In the checkout line at the supermarket, filling out insurance or tax forms, or going through an airport security check, we spot holes in the defenses, ways of beating the system.
In part this must be something we do to figure out how safe we are, or how safe our society is. Some of us also may have a legitimate professional interest in the subject, including security professionals and policemen and the like. In fact, screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke, who won an Oscar for The Lavender Hill Mob, was himself a former policeman, and when he sat down to write about a trusted bank employee who steals a million pounds’ worth of gold, he approached the Bank of England for advice on a plausible way to do it — a request to which the Bank responded enthusiastically, making a informal investigation of the subject that subsequently
Much of the comedy comes from reversal of stereotypes, with the mild-mannered, middle-class Holland aspiring to the role of criminal mastermind, and Holland’s elderly landlady (Edie Martin) knowledgeably conversing with bemused bobbies in street slang learned from dime-store crime fiction. And while the caper-gone-wrong comedy genre has been done to death in recent decades, The Lavender Hill Mob avoids most of what became the clichés of the genre. In fact, up to a point things actually go quite a bit more smoothly than the characters fear they are going, and more than once the perpetrators almost give themselves away because they think the jig is already up.
Memorable scenes include the amusing way Holland and his
partner Stanley Holloway advertise for and finally recruit a pair
of more experienced criminal elements, a dizzily
Vertigo-like sequence on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower,
and a hilarious bit involving a boisterous policeman. Also worth
noting is a
Though The Lavender Hill Mob far from a morality tale, a neat crime-doesn’t-pay twist is more than the mere "sop to the censors" some unfairly consider it, since it makes for a satisfying twist and a memorable climactic image.
In Kind Hearts and Coronets, the driest, darkest, and arguably the best of Ealing Studio’s acclaimed British crime comedies, murder itself is a trivial offense compared to punctilious observance of the highest standards of Edwardian social rectitude, at least for the aristocratic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), or Lord d’Ascoyne as he is styled after ensuring the deaths of each of the eight relations who once stood between himself and the peerage.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.