Starring: Alec Guiness, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Pretending to be a musical group, a band of robbers rent out a room from a sweet old lady, who they think will be no trouble at all. But when she finds out about their crime, she urges them to come forward and return the money. Since she is a witness, it makes sense to do away with her, but she’s so sweet and innocent, that the robbers start to turn on each other instead. As each attempt on her life is tried, one of the men is killed off instead.
This film is a classic piece of British cinema, one of the famous comedies to come out of Ealing studios (which incidentally is where I went to study film making). It’s director Alexander Mackendrick’s last film for the studio, and many people feel that it is his darkest comedy. His work as a screenwriter and director are still highly respected today, and his book On Film-making is still required reading in film schools.
The robbers themselves are all different comic types of the era or crime caper stock types, from the cold criminal mastermind, the foreign thief, and the young dapper teen of the era. While they never spill over into melodrama or caricature, they’re all hilariously funny in their send up of different types, who all have the same problem: they may not be moral men, but none of them wants to bump off an old lady.
Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers are of course, wonderful performers, and were so good at creating characters that they would then completely disappear into. They’re put to wonderful good use in this film. And there must be something said for the delightful Katie Johnson as the old lady with strong, old fashioned morals from what was even then a bygone era.
Mackendrick has drawn a parallel with this film. He has pointed out in his books that the indomitable old lady is post-war Britain, which was struggling in the 1950’s to maintain it’s identity and to regroup. The men who want to kill her are all different aspects that challenge or threatened Britain, from foreigners to impoverished aristocracy. She manages to outlive them all. It’s a funny message to hide in a film, and an interesting one to dissect with Britain going through Brexit right now, and fearing the same real or imagined threats that this film proposes. But the point is that the British spirit is indomitable, and though ancient and crumbling, also enduring. It’s also just a fun and entertaining dark comedy, rich in imagery and detail, and definitely worth a watch.
See It If: you love British cinema or dark comedies, this one is a true classic and doesn’t feel dated at all. Delicious and dark.