The Lavender Hill Mob – 60th anniversary cinema and DVD release
Ealing Studios classic The Lavender Mill Mob, directed by Charles Crichton and starring Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway, is re-released in cinemas today, and on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 1st August, to coincide with the film’s 60th anniversary.
The Lavender Hill Mob
(Charles Crichton, GB, 1951)
A surreal satire disguised as a laidback romp, Ealing’s classic heist comedy suggests that, beneath every English gent lurks a wannabe gangster
Think the Americans have got the crime genre sewn up? The Lavender Hill Mob is a stunning attempt to recreate the heist film in English clothes: specifically, wearing a bowler hat and a bow tie. In doing so, it becomes a celebration of national wit and eloquence, a satire of post-war austerity and conformity – and an Oscar-winning triumph that charmed the Yanks and paved the way for Alec Guinness’ global stardom.
The set-up is simplicity itself, with a narrative economy that makes most heist movies look like aimless faffing-around. Guinness’ bullion clerk Henry Holland is a model employee: stiff, precise and apparently duller than dishwater. But it’s an act. For 20 years, this avid reader of American crime literature has sized up the perfect heist and the perfect alibi, if only he can get the gold out of the country. Enter Stanley Holloway’s businessman, Pendlebury, who moulds tourist souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower and is only one temptation away from going crooked himself.
“The Lavender Hill Mob mocks a typically English attitude: but for a chance meeting, Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway would slave away in middle-class conformity…”
It’s a typically English attitude: Guinness and Holloway are playing two men with half an opportunity who, but for a chance meeting, would slave away in middle-class conformity for the rest of their lives. None of the go-getting American attitude here; just a festering discontent with dreary old England. And T.E.B. Clarke’s brilliant story lays on further ironies. Because these English gents are squeamish about getting their hands dirty, they trick two genuine thieves (Alfie Bass and Sid James) into joining the gang…but the latter, both being salt-of-the-earth types, deferring to their betters with laughable deference.
Fast-forward a decade and The Lavender Hill Mob would be unimaginable – it simply wouldn’t work after the Kray Brothers became famous – but here it’s a beautifully constructed address about a nation clinging desperately to tradition notions of class when the Yanks have nabbed the initiative. The key scene shows Henry reading a dimestore novel (complete with pitch-perfect exaggeration of American idiom) to an elderly tea-drinking lady. The only thing hard-boiled about this community is their eggs, and the film rests on the beautiful juxtaposition of these Ealing eccentrics trying to pull off the perfect job, calling themselves a ‘mob’ and giving Henry a charmingly inept attempt at a tough-guy nickname: “Dutch.”
“Alec Guinness is a marvel in The Lavender Hill Mob, a mischievous imp disguised in prim and proper garb…”
Of course, the perfect job doesn’t go quite according to plan. It never does, in the movies. The joy of The Lavender Hill Mob lies in seeing these hapless amateurs fumble their way through the motions. The heist itself nearly collapses due to nothing more than absent-mindedness, while the final act sets about dismantling everything British cinema ever held dear. It’s here that Charles Crichton takes the opportunity to throw off national reserve and go completely bonkers. From the point the villains dash down the steps of the Eiffel Tower, laughing maniacally, the film becomes a surreal farce that escalates in implausibility and mocking indulgence until it is practically a Hollywood slapstick comedy, complete with car chase.
It’s a reminder that Charles Crichton would end his career working with the Pythons on A Fish Called Wanda, and that – in his youth – Alec Guinness was as much of an English rebel as John Cleese. Guinness is a marvel here, a mischievous imp disguised in prim and proper garb: the devil’s accountant. It helps that he was in his mid-30s but playing much older, but mostly it’s the contrast between conformity and chaos that Guinness shines. Yes, it’s a team effort, with Stanley Holloway providing a bromantic foil, and Sid James and Alfie Bass nabbing laughs where they can, but it’s Guinness’ film.