When it comes to the well-known Ealing comedies, those 6 or 7 films that (for many people) define what ‘Ealing’ means within British film culture, it is difficult for me to pick a favourite. The Man in the White Suit (1951) has real bite to it, a pitch-black satire which shares some similarities with the earlier Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and later The Ladykillers (1955); yet the wish-fulfilment of Passport to Pimlico (1949) is wonderfully performed and presented, and (as readers of the blog know) I do have a soft-spot for the film often described as the lesser of the comedies, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Yet this film cannot be ignored, not least for its sheer pace, inventiveness and for the strength of Alec Guinness’ performance.
The story of Henry ‘Dutch’ Holland (Guinness), a minor bowler-hatted bank functionary among thousands of his ilk, and the fulfilment of his (long-held) desire to steal the gold bullion he shepherds from foundry to bank vault, is likely well known. Planning the heist with his artist friend Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and crooks Lackery Wood (Sid James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass), the film shows us how this small repressed man changes into a new character through his criminal endeavours. That the scheme – melting the stolen gold into Eiffel Tower models that can be transported to Paris – ultimately fails is immaterial to the film’s real interest in Holland’s blossoming.
As much a tour de force for Guinness as Kind Hearts (although less showy), there are key scenes – most notably when Holland arrives back at the bank with a spring in his step (having recruited crooks and put plans in place), only to visibly shrink and deflate back to his ‘work’ persona when called into see his boss. Equally, the moment where Holland realises he is in charge of this gang, or where he sees the trust that Lackery and Shorty have placed in him, confirm Guinness’ ability to inscribe the character with nuanced gesture and expression.
The film also contains many strong visual moments: Holland and Pendlebury running down the central stairway of the Eiffel Tower is well known (and a nice visual link to an earlier scene where Holland was made to spin on the spot to make it easier for Lackery to tie him up), but the film also contains strong location work (seemingly shot on the same streets around St Pauls and the City as Pool of London (1951), which was produced a few months earlier), a speedily-edited car chase montage (that harks back to Pool of London and 1950s The Blue Lamp), and a strong sequence where Lackery and Shorty are recruited into the gang in a shadowy warehouse (notably Shorty’s initial entrance, as a monstrous and misshapen shadow cast on the wall, then revealed to be the diminutive Alfie Bass). Equally, a single-shot sequence following Holland – hailed as a hero – from room to room in the bank, from Chief Cashier to the Chairman and Board of Directors, perfectly conveys Holland’s growing sense of himself but adds a nice satirical note that only in organising this robbery has he achieved this level of success at the institution he just robbed.
The film maintains a solid balance between its whimsy – Holloway plays Pendlebury as a scatter-brained Shakespeare-quoting twit, the laughing schoolgirls who inadvertently buy six of the mob’s Eiffel Towers – and its broader comic moments. Holland reads pulpy crime novel You’d Look Well in a Shroud to his landlady, Miss Evesham (Edie Martin); Lackery, stuck next to the safe he’s trying to break into, tucks into a sandwich; Holland has to mess up and rip his own clothes to establish his alibi after the robbery; French immigration and customs prevent Holland and Pendlebury from boarding a ship. These moments punctuate and inform the film’s strong and propulsive narrative, which only shows signs of flagging in Holland and Pendlebury’s pursuit of the final Eiffel Tower statue back in England and the slapstick chase through a police museum exhibition that ensues. This sequence works, but the move into broader comedy does pull the film away from the blacker and satiric edge the earlier scenes contained. It does, however, point up an underlying interest in technology – the large advert for Ekcovision Television behind Pendlebury as he waits for the heist to begin; the wireless radio police cars in the chase – and the potential misuse of such technology, given Holland’s ability to mislead the police using the radio.
At the end of the film, the contrast of the versions of Holland the film has presented to us becomes clear: pursued by the police, Holland is able to return to his persona as a ‘non-entity’ among thousands, losing himself among a crowd of other bowler-hatted city gents; as the film cuts to Holland in Rio (these sequences bookend the film), however, it is clear that his meek persona has been replaced by a confident and happy one (fuelled by money and status), even when he is being taken back to Britain in handcuffs (a lovely reveal, right at the end, as he and the policeman stand up from their table). If this film, as has been claimed, is a drama of wish-fulfilment, then Holland’s dream came true and (as we can see in that final scene) remains true even when captivity looms.
[The Lavender Hill Mob is released by Studio Canal on DVD and Blu-Ray, see www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, we head back 'down under' for Ealing Films' The Shiralee (1957)...