Director: Charles Crichton
Production: A Michael Balcon Production for Ealing Studios; black and white; running time: 78 minutes; length: 7,043 feet. Released June 1951.
Producer: Michael Balcon; associate producer: Michael Truman; screenplay: T. E. B. Clarke; photography: Douglas Slocombe; editor: Seth Holt; art director: William Kellner; music: Georges Auric.
Cast: Alec Guinness ( Holland ); Stanley Holloway ( Pendlebury ); Sidney James ( Lackery ); Alfie Bass ( Shorty ); Marjorie Fielding ( Mrs. Chalk ); Edie Martin ( Miss Evesham ); Ronald Adam ( Bank Official ); Clive Morton ( Police Sergeant ); John Gregson ( Farrow ); Sidney Tafler ( Stallholder ); Patrick Barr ( Inspector ); Meredith Edwards ( P.C. Edwards ); Robert Shaw ( Police Scientist ); Michael Trubshawe ( British Ambassador ); Audrey Hepburn ( Chiquita ).
Oscar for Best Script, 1952; British Film Academy Award for Best Film,
Clarke, T. E. B., The Lavender Hill Mob in The Cinema 1952 , edited by Roger Manvell and R. K. N. Baxter, London, 1952.
Tynan, Kenneth, Alec Guinness , New York, 1955.
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Guinness, Alec, My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor , New York, 1998.
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Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1951.
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Green, Ian, "Ealing: In the Comedy Frame," in British Cinema History , edited by James Curran and Vincent Porter, London, 1983.
* * *
In the three films which T. E. B. Clarke and Charles Crichton— respectively the most talented writer and director of the Ealing mainstream—made together at Balcon's studio, the whole trajectory of Ealing comedy can be traced. Hue and Cry , their first collaboration, initiated the cycle with its fresh, original approach. With their third, The Titfield Thunderbolt , the genre can be seen declining into self-conscious, sentimental whimsy. And between these two stands The Lavender Hill Mob , which in many ways qualifies as the quintessential Ealing comedy.
Mainstream Ealing comedy (as against the tougher, maverick strain of Hamer and Mackendrick) tends to act out fantasies of wish-fulfilment—in Charles Barr's words, "the triumph of the innocent, the survival of the un fittest." The Lavender Hill Mob makes this explicit. Having opened on an escapist dream of tropical luxury, with Holland (Alec Guinness) dispensing largesse in a Rio bar, fawned upon by ambassadors, society hostesses, and shapely señoritas (Audrey Hepburn in a 30-second bit part), we fade back to his drab past, "when I was merely a nonentity among all those thousands who flock every morning into the City," with an image that recalls The Waste Land :
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
And at the end of the film, in a neat ironic twist, he evades police pursuit by briefly rejoining his fellow-nonentities, one indistinguishable bowler-hatted figure among many, before taking off into his exotic dreamworld.
"Most men who long to be rich know inwardly that they will never achieve their ambition." Nor will we; but Holland, our meek surrogate, will achieve it for us. Hemmed in by the stuffy respectability of the Balmoral Guest House (that same Victorian world of little old ladies sardonically targeted by Mackendrick in The Ladykillers ), and by his dismissive superiors—"He's no imagination, no initiative"— the worm turns. "OK, you're the boss," says Lackery (Sidney James), as they plan the robbery. Holland leans back, a gleam of delight behind his spectacles as the idea sinks in. "Yes. Yes, that's right. I am."
Guinness's performance, hinting at wild insubordination lurking beneath the prissy, deferential exterior, is finely balanced by the more stolid presence of Stanley Holloway as Pendlebury, the artist manqué churning out shoddy souvenirs ("I propagate British cultural depravity"). Sex, as often with Ealing, scarcely figures as such; but the relationship between the two men takes on a tangential sexuality, as in the justly celebrated "seduction scene" where Holland, Eve to Pendlebury's Adam, circles slyly round his slower-witted partner dropping hints until realisation dawns: "By Jove, Holland, it's a good job we're both honest men." And later, as the first of the gold-bullion Eiffel Towers emerges from the mould, Holland breathes tenderly, "Our first-born."
Though Ladykillers will also feature Guinness as gang boss, there's little otherwise in common between the two films; Mackendrick's gleeful mayhem would shatter the gentle make-believe of Clarke's comedy, where crime entails neither violence nor victim. And while Crichton's crisp editing and flair for comic pacing are everywhere in evidence, it's probably fair to consider Clarke the film's primary auteur—not only for the frequent similarities, in mood and characterisation, with other Clarke comedies such as Passport to Pimlico and Hue and Cry , but for the gusto with which the writer, himself an ex-policeman, parodies his own police chase sequence from The Blue Lamp .
Thoroughly characteristic of Clarke, too, is the conclusion of the film. Back in the tropical bar, the polite stranger to whom Holland has been telling his story stands up, and Holland with him. A pair of handcuffs links their wrists. The wish-fulfilment dream is over; the anti-social impulse, no matter how innocuous, how engagingly personified, must ultimately be restrained. The Lavender Hill Mob was hugely popular, and won an Oscar for its script. It remains lively, inventive, and a pleasure to watch. But it marks an ending; after it, the vitality drained out of Ealing comedy, save only those directed by Mackendrick. Once in place, the handcuffs proved impossible to remove.