Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway
Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
Pushing further into the realm of comedies, future British acting legend Alec Guinness stars in another Ealing picture, this one being perhaps a precursor to heist movies in decades that follow. A humor filled romp about the robbing of a bank of large sum of gold, the film uses the perceived snooty nature of English gentlemen characters as the canvas upon which to paint its bumbling anti-hero. Mixing the suave debonair of a seasoned thief with a fish-out-of-water motif, high stakes, good acting, brilliant writing, and inspired direction we get one of the great classic British comedies of all time.
The Lavender Hill Mob is a British comedy about a meek bank clerk’s plan to rob his bank out a fortune in gold bullion. In Rio de Janeiro a generously wealthy Englishman, Henry Holland (Alec Guinness), recounts to a companion how he came to be where he is in life. Back in London he was highly professional, unassuming clerk conjures the idea of robbing one of the gold deliveries he supervises over in what he considers the perfect crime. Recruiting his neighbor and friend Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and two low level crooks he stages a robbery of one of his deliveries making it appear he is the victim. Using Pendlebury’s souvenir business they mask the gold by forming them into Eiffel Tower paperweights as means to smuggle the wealth out of the country without notice. In Paris a handful of the masked gold is accidentally sold at the souvenir stand to English tourists sending Holland and Pendlebury racing to reacquiring them back in nation they just smuggled them out of. One gold tower is enough to connect the dots for authorities sending Holland and Pendlebury on the run pursued by the authorities for their crime. Pendlebury is arrested, but Holland successfully escapes to Rio using the amount of gold he had on hand to afford a year’s worth of lavish living in the South American nation. Here Holland concludes his story where it is revealed he was recounting to the man arresting him, handcuffed as they leave to return to England and his fate.
The feature is a whirlwind of humor, clever storytelling, suspense, and fun. We spend the movie rooting for this gentlemanly antihero to succeed at his heist of grand proportions, sending us on an adventure of two friends with meager means of attempting their perfect crime. The delightful mix of British humor with this heist story performed by the great Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway comes together to the backdrop of London and Paris. Its dry and goofy, enthralling, and creative in its own way easily making it a beloved picture in British cinema all these years later.
The story was conceived and penned by Ealing Studios writer T.E.B. Clarke who was tasked with delivering an idea of a working-class crime. Envisioning a clerk robbing him our bank, Clarke became inspired witnessing a old man of short stature supervising the delivery of gold by way of armored truck to the back he was visiting for research, giving him the premise upon which he expanded from.
Alec Guinness after a couple of more serious roles returned to Ealing where he found great renowned in the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), here cast as the unassuming bank clerk. Looking to make the Holland more relatable and likable he gave the character a particular British accent where his r’s were pronounced as w’s, giving his antihero an imperfection that bridged his gentlemanly persona to the simpleton scoundrel he his at heart.
His partner is crime is Alfred “Al” Pendlebury portrayed by prominent comedian and humorist Stanley Holloway. At first not realizing he is being recruited for a crime, then being hesitant, and ultimately evolving into being a full partner his portrayl is even more of a bubbling British man just unwise enough to go along with Holland’s crime. Holloway provides the jovial yet worrisome ying to the Guinness’ much drier and determined yang. Through his performance the heist becomes a form of buddy comedy, a crime by two partners similar to Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967) as two conceive of a scheme only to watch it dissolve into humorous failure.
The remainder of the Lavender Hill Mob, which comes from the name of the street Holland and Pendlebury live on, is fleshed out by Sid James and Alfie Bass as two petty criminals that help carry out stopping and robbing the armored truck with Holland inside. The two character actors provide little in terms of substance in the overall movie other than hired hands for the caper. Both characters of Lackery and Shorty excuse themselves from the concluding steps of the heist for amusingly normal reasons, most notably their wives not allowing them to go to Paris. This swiftly excuses the two from taking part in the meat of the third act as we focus on our stars and shenanigans through Paris and return to England.
Under the direction of studio filmmaker Charles Crichton, the picture takes us on a tour of sights in London’s financial district and the Eiffel Tower with visuals equally pleasing as the story. Aside from couple of special effect shots that do not look as convincing now as they did then, Crichton films the picture in a manner that gets across the frantic nature of the heist along with the suspense and dread that builds within the men as they fear being caught. The most uniquely constructed portion of the action comes from Holland and Pendlebury’s frantic decent down the spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the sold golden tower souvenirs. With the build in speed and the nature of the staircase the scene gets across the manner which dizzies both the characters and the audience withs images swirl and spin, ramping up the desperate nature of the scene and our heroes as they pursue tourists that acquired some of their incriminating evidence.
In the end the picture is fun, humorous, and filled with suspense that may even please a Alfred Hitchcock fan. Upon release the film was a success domestically as well as abroad, swiftly becoming one of the highest praised films in the United Kingdom of 1951. The following year The Lavender Hill Mob was embraced in the United States, earning Guinness an Academy Award nomination and a Oscar win for T.E.B. Clarke for Best Story and Screenplay, the precursor to the modern Best Original Screenplay category. The film marked the highest grossing feature for Alec Guinness in America for many years, that was until a science fiction film premiered in 1977 called Star Wars.
In the years since The Lavender Hill Mob has witnessed much praise, marking it as an all-time classic of British cinema as well as one of the all-time great comedies. It can be found named on numerous lists of favorite films by various critics and historians through the decades and continues to delight audiences discovering it to this day.