Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Ealing Greats - The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) was the second of three Ealing collaborations between director Charles Crichton and writer T.E.B. Clarke, the team responsible for Hue and Cry (1947) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Like those films, and Clarke's previous comedy, Passport to Pimlico. (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949), it is a piece of thoroughly good escapism.

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The fantasy here is the perfect robbery - £1 million in gold bullion stolen from the Bank of England and smuggled to France in the form of Eiffel Tower paperweights - and it barely matters that, in the end, the meek master-criminals Holland (Alec Guinness) and Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) are both captured.

Theirs is a harmless daydream, an ultimately mild gesture of defiance against conformity. For all the brilliance of their initial plan, they are finally undone by a very English failing, a lack of competence in foreign languages - Pendlebury's instruction to his French assistant not to sell paperweights from the boxes marked 'R' is misunderstood, because the English 'R' sounds like the French 'A'.

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Holland and Pendlebury - both nice, gentle and unthreatening in their non-conformity (this is a crime without victims) - are light years away from the more menacing (though no more successful) gang of The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955). Even their partners-in-crime, the Cockney professional thieves Lackery (Sidney James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) carry not a grain of ruthlessness: they are so trustful of Holland and Pendlebury that they even risk losing their share of the profits (and presumably do).

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The film gently satirises the Establishment, in the shape of Holland's unperceptive employers at the Bank, the media, and the police. The climactic car chase, in which Holland and Pendlebury almost, but not quite, outwit their police pursuers, wittily spoofs one in The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1950), also scripted by Clarke.

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Although not as tidy in its plotting as Passport to Pimlico - we never learn what happens to Lackery and Shorty - The Lavender Hill Mob is as enjoyable as it is lightweight, and absolutely characteristic of Ealing, with its gang of likeable eccentrics who briefly challenge authority before passively accepting defeat.



Published by


Volume 18, No.210, July 1951, page 292


Officials at the Bank consider Mr. Holland a meek, respectable and honest employee in the modest job of supervising deliveries of bullion from gold refineries to the Bank. Mr. Holland's dream, however, is to appropriate £1,000,000 in gold bars for himself, escape from his dull boarding house existence and live in luxury for the remainder of his life. He has, over the years, conceived a plan for the actual theft, and when Mr. Pendlebury, manufacturer of souvenir articles for export, sets up a small foundry in the boarding house he realises that here is an opportunity for him to melt the loot and smuggle it out of the country. Quickly seduced into entering the conspiracy, Pendlebury agrees to transport the gold to France in Eiffel Tower paperweights: two professional thieves, Lackery and Shorty, are brought in to help. Holland and Pendlebury go to Paris to collect their booty, and discover that six of the souvenirs have been innocently purchased by a party of English schoolgirls. In their efforts to trace the girls, they incur police suspicion. Holland and Pendlebury manage to steal a police car and broadcast false messages, but Pendlebury is caught. Holland escapes to Brazil, but the law catches up with him there.

Once again Ealing Studios have produced a bright and entertaining comedy, scripted by the author of Hue and Cry, Passport to Pimlico and others. With the exception of two unnecessarily long episodes on the Eiffel Tower and at the Calais Customs Building, amusing situations and dialogue are well paced and sustained throughout. The climax is delightful.

Alec Guinness as Holland and Stanley Holloway as the rhetorical Mr. Pendlebury play excellently together; in support, Marjorie Fielding as an ardent fan of crime stories, Edie Martin as the landlady, and Sidney James and Alfie Bass as the professional thieves are particularly good.

It is interesting to note that Ealing have sensibly disregarded the 90 minutes first feature rule, and cut the running time to 78 minutes.

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.

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