“ Genre: Comedy / Theatrical Release: 1951 / Universal, suitable for all / Director: Charles Crichton / Actors: Alec Guinness, Sid James, Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass, John Gregson ... / DVD released 2006-11-13 at Optimum Home Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Black & White, PAL „
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Mild-mannered bank clerk Henry Holland, who oversees the transportation of gold bullion, has always had a dream of stealing some and running away. However, he knows that he cannot do it without a partner. Then Alfred Pendlebury moves into his boarding house; Pendlebury makes metal Eiffel Towers for the export market. Before long, the two of them realise that they could stage a heist, steal the gold bullion, turn it into Eiffel Towers and smuggle it overseas. And with the help of the rest of the 'mob' - Lackery and Shorty Fisher - they begin to put their plan into action. But will they get away with it, or is the plan doomed to failure?
One of the most famous of the Ealing comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob was released in 1951. Somewhat scarily, it is due to be remade in 2011 - as it is such a classic film, I really hope the remake does justice to the original. A very young Alec Guiness stars as Henry Holland in this version, as he did in many of the well-known Ealing comedies. He is completely convincing as an unassuming bank clerk, who, once he has a taste of power, begins to show a tougher side. There are some elements of comedy in the role; but it isn't the laugh-out loud comedy I've seen him perform in other films - this is very under-stated comedy that improves each time you watch it. It is very hard not to be charmed by him, for all his faults, and there is no doubt that Alec Guiness was an excellent choice for the role.
Guiness is ably assisted by Stanley Holloway, another Ealing comedy stalwart, who plays Alfred Pendlebury. He is a much more openly humourous character, although it is mainly because of the way he bounces off Guiness that makes him funny. I still wouldn't say I laughed out loud at his antics, but I was left with a warm feeling of having watched something enjoyable. Sid James plays Lackery, in a role that isn't very typical of his later comic roles - Lackery is quite a creepy, evil character, who doesn't turn out to be all that reliable. His role is fairly minor though, so he doesn't have all that much impact on the film. The same goes for Alfie Bass who plays Shorty Fisher. There is also a very brief appearance from Audrey Hepburn at the beginning of the film; but blink and you'll miss it!
The story is told in three parts. The first is the planning stage, when Holland and Pendlebury first meet up and put their dreams into words. This is the slowest and most serious part of the film, really giving us the opportunity to get to know the characters and to realise that, despite the fact they are about to commit a crime, we actually want them to get away with it. The middle part is the actual heist, when things really begin to hot up, and there are some moments of wonderful comedy from Alec Guiness - his fake frightened face peering out from the back of the gold bullion van is classic, as is his stumbling around after having been tied up by the rest of the mob. Finally, there is the smuggling overseas bit, which has the most comic moments as Holland and Pendlebury are forced to chase miniature Eiffel Towers around!
I do think that the humour, which is very British - read understated, is mainly down to the characters and their interpretation of the lines. However, behind all that, the script is very well put together; in fact the writer, T E B Clarke, won an Oscar for the screenplay. I think that there are many screenwriters out there today who could learn a lot from his skills. Instead of providing belly laughs every now and again of the type that, once you've seen in the trailer, isn't really that funny any more, the humour here is gentle and most certainly improves with time - each time I watch the film, I find something else in it to amuse me. These older films were made to last - and that is why they are still so popular today.
The film was made in 1951; it is obviously in black and white. I really don't have a problem with this. Although the film was clearly made on a budget, the picture is more than clear enough - it would be a great shame if someone was to avoid watching it just because it isn't in colour. The language is very out-dated too - most of the characters (with the obvious exception of Sid James!) speak with that plummy BBC English accent that just isn't heard any more. It does mean that there is no confusion over what is being said though!
There is just one extra with the DVD that I have - a trailer. This is a shame, because I would really have liked to learn more about the Ealing studios and how the films were put together. However, I'm sure that, with the re-make coming up, there will be a new version of the DVD; hopefully that will have more in the way of extras.
This is a classic film, one that has stood the test of time and is still so well considered that it is being re-made. It is also a film that improves with time; despite the fact that it was made on a budget, some of the nuances in the script and acting only come out after repeated viewings. If you haven't yet seen it, take the opportunity to do so before the re-make comes along - I will be very surprised if it's anything like as good as the original. Highly recommended.
The DVD is available from Amazon for £4.98, although it is worth looking for collections of Ealing comedies, which are obviously much better value.
Running time: 81 minutes