The story - five criminals, posing as musicians, successfully carry out a robbery, then find themselves defeated by their apparently harmless landlady, and ultimately driven to destroy each other - came in a dream to writer William Rose (who also wrote Mackendrick's previous film, The Maggie (1954)), and Mackendrick was immediately taken by its dark humour.
Alec Guinness gives probably his finest comic performance as the increasingly unhinged criminal mastermind Professor Marcus. The role was originally intended for Alastair Sim, and Guinness plays the part with more than a hint of Sim about him. But the film really belonged to the 77-year-old Katie Johnson as the apparently dotty but utterly indefatigable Mrs Wilberforce.
The casting is perfect across the board: Herbert Lom, in his first comic role, brings genuine menace as hardman Louis (as Mackendrick noted, "he acted as though he didn't know he was funny"), while Cecil Parker as the Major and the huge ex-boxer Danny Green as ex-boxer One-Round seem so right it's hard to imagine others in the roles. Peter Sellers got his first major film part as Teddy Boy Harry (he also voiced Mrs Wilberforce's parrots). Sellers and Lom would later play against each other in severalPink Panther films.
Like Mackendrick's earlier The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Mandy(1952), the subtext of The Ladykillers was the stultifying conservatism of contemporary Britain. Mrs Wilberforce and her similarly aged friends represent the continuing weight of Victorian England holding back progress and innovation (that this innovation is represented here as robbery and murder gives some indication of the ambiguity ofMackendrick's vision).
The Ladykillers was a big success in Britain and in the US, where it was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar. Rose, however, left the production midway, following arguments with Mackendrick and producerSeth Holt, leaving them to complete the script from his notes. When he finally saw the film, three years later, he was forced to admit that the results improved on his own vision.
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 23, No.264, January 1956, page 3
LADYKILLERS, THE (1955)
Mrs. Wilberforce, a rather vague old lady living alone in a tumbledown house near King's Cross station, decides to take in a lodger. The weird Professor Marcus applies, is installed, and frequently visited by four sinister friends. Mrs. Wilberforce happily accepts the explanation that they are keen amateur musicians, whereas in fact they are planning a daring robbery in which the old lady herself is to be unwittingly involved. The stolen money is hidden in her house, but when she discovers its existence the gang realises it is necessary to kill her. They cannot agree, however, who shall do the deed, and begin to fall out over the issue. The result is internecine warfare, and with Marcus' death, the gang has ceased to exist. The police genially disbelieve the old lady's story, and she is left vaguely wondering what to do with £60,000.
This comedy thriller is the best film to come from Ealing Studios for some time, and the combined talents of William Rose (writer) and Alexander Mackendrick (director) have produced a witty and original diversion. If once or twice the handling is a little too broad and comedy topples into farce - the pursuit of Mrs. Wilberforce's parrot and Frankie Howerd's "guest" appearance as an outraged barrow-boy - the style as a whole is agreeably subtle and sophisticated, and the confrontation of elderly respectability and raffish criminality provides many extremely funny episodes. Alec Guinness creates a splendid portrait of Marcus, outwardly absurd but at times genuinely frightening, and Katie Johnson strikes just the right note of frail obstinacy as Mrs. Wilberforce. The collection of old ladies at the tea party is masterfully assembled.
The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.