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One of the most popular films produced by Ealing Studios during their peak years, The Ladykillers (1955) is a delightful black comedy that has aged much better than some of the other Ealing entertainments from the same period. For one thing, the clever script by William Rose (it was nominated for an Oscar) is so impeccably British, conjuring up a portrait of postwar London that is both idealized and satiric. And the central premise is hard to top. A gang of thieves, headed by Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), takes two rooms at a boardinghouse run by the eccentric Mrs. Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). Here they pretend to be a practicing string quartet as a cover for their true intention -- a security van robbery. Although the gang successfully carry off their heist, the criminals are eventually undone by their own greed and their various, unsuccessful attempts to murder their meddling landlady who remains oblivious to their crime -- or does she?
According to the film's producer in his autobiography (Michael Balcon Presents...A Lifetime of Films), screenwriter William Rose "literally dreamed up The Ladykillers -- the germ of the idea came to him while he was asleep and at a time when he confessed that his brain was barren of ideas. He had been working at high pressure and felt creatively exhausted. Happily for us, he recalled the dream one day while talking with [director Alexander] "Sandy" MacKendrick, and so was born the story of the somewhat pixilated old lady getting involved in the doings of an extraordinary gang of crooks." The interesting thing about The Ladykillers, which is set in a precisely detailed world of English manners and tradition, is the fact that Rose was actually an American. He defected to Canada prior to World War II and joined the army there, later coming to England where he attempted to enter the film industry. He eventually went to work at Ealing where he worked on Genevieve (1953), Touch and Go (1955) and other features.
While Rose is directly responsible for much of The Ladykillers's offbeat, macabre humor, the film also owes a great deal of its success to the brilliant comic performances of Alec Guinness, Katie Johnson, Peter Sellers and the excellent ensemble cast. In fact, Sellers was later quoted as saying, "The first real film I made was The Ladykillers. I can remember all of that very well. I used to watch Alec Guinness, who is an absolute idol of mine, do everything, his rehearsals, his scenes, everything. It was fascinating....Not that I could hope to be as good as Guinness. But he is my ideal...and my idol." Ironically, Guinness, who was an international star by the time he made The Ladykillers, was terribly insecure about his talent and even told director Alexander MacKendrick prior to filming The Ladykillers that he was too old for the part and recommended hiring another actor. Producer Balcon in his autobiography added that "Peter Sellers was much the same and it is interesting that they greatly admired one another. He made his first film for me with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers and he was desperately anxious. He kept asking, 'Is it all right? Am I any good?'...the title was literal. The lady the gang were intent on doing away with was a dear little old actress, Kate Johnson, who had played lots of small parts in films. It was curious to see her accept her elevation to stardom quite calmly in her seventies while it was Sellers, still in his twenties, who was unsure of himself. Sadly, Katie Johnson's only big part was her last [she died two years later], but that is surely the way for a pro to go."
Other cast members who would go on to greater fame and fortune after The Ladykillers were Kenneth Connor and Frankie Howard, who appeared in several popular Carry On comedies and, of course, Herbert Lom, who would team up with Peter Sellers years later, playing his nemesis in a series of Pink Panther films. The Ladykillers marked Alexander MacKendrick's final film for Ealing Studios; he soon departed for America where he would direct Sweet Smell of Success in 1957, a movie which was a complete departure from his forte -- British comedy. In 2004, the Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers with Tom Hanks and moved the setting from London to Biloxi, Mississippi.
Producer: Michael Balcon
Director: Alexander MacKendrick
Screenplay: William Rose
Art Direction: Jim Morahan
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Editing: Jack Harris
Music: Tristram Cary
Cast: Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Cecil Parker (Maj. Courteney), Herbert Lom (Louis Harvey), Peter Sellers (Harry Robinson), Katie Johnson (Mrs. Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce), Danny Green (One-Round), Frankie Howard (The Barrow Boy), Philip Stainton (Sergeant MacDonald).
By Jeff Stafford