The Ladykillers (1955)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

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In The Ladykillers, a group of five burglars hole up in the home of an elderly lady while they execute an armed robbery.  The ringleader, Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), plans to use the elderly lady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), as their unwitting getaway driver, a plan which mystifies the others but for a time works quite well.

The first half of this comedy deals with the robbers pretending to be musicians and planning the heist in secret.  At around the midpoint a three stooges-like blunder causes her to discover what they’ve been up to, and the rest of the film concerns the group’s effort to prevent Wilberforce from going to the police.

What works about this movie is that the characters are all some combination of likable and clumsy.  Though the five men are criminals, they are more like children who don’t want to be told on than violent thieves.  Mrs. Wilberforce is like their schoolteacher.  She insists on doing the right thing with no regard for the jeopardy she may be putting herself in.

Once she has discovered the crime, Mrs. Wilberforce insists the gang return the money and apologize.  She is either too naive or too enlightened to understand the present criminal court system, and even when the group suggests she may be implicated as a co-conspirator, she maintains that they must do the right thing.

It’s because of her damn wholesomeness that the gang has so much trouble dealing with her.  They consider their crime a victimless one since the organization they robbed will simply have everything returned to them by an insurance agency.  All that will happen is that future premiums will go up ever so slightly, and ta da, no one’s hurt.

Undeterred, Wilberforce decides to turn them all in the following morning, and the gang spends all night and into the next day trying to decide who will kill her.  They draw matchsticks to determine the unlucky man because none of them want to do it.  They may steal, sure, but they’re not murderers.  They don’t have to tell us this either.  We can see it in their eyes.

Professor Marcus is something like Victor Frankenstein’s Igor…

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He’s introduced as a dramatic silhouette who spies on Wilberforce like he’s Jack the Ripper and then turns out to be something either much more sinister or playful, it’s hard to tell.  But as the story goes on, Marcus’ plan is so detailed, and the lengths he goes to in order to protect Wilberforce or so nuanced that he’s hard not to like.

Then you have the guy on the right, Louis (Herbert Nom), who resembles a 1940’s era noir detective, like he’s doing his best Humphrey Bogart impression.  Another character, One Round (Danny Green) is the bald guy on the left who you might think is Lenny from Of Mice and Men or one of the three stooges.  It’s his blunder that foils their perfect heist.

The guy on the left is an unrecognizably young Peter Sellers (at least I didn’t recognize him), and he’s one of the quieter characters defined mostly by his Elvis Presley haircut.  Oh and there’s the guy in the middle who looks like he should be a police officer.

It’s an odd bunch, is the point, and other than Louis it’s hard to see any of these men as truly villainous.  They are inept, childlike not just in their greed but their fear of chastisement as well.

In the end they don’t win.  The movie builds like a modern day horror movie as the gang is slowly picked off one by one.  This is at their own hands, of course, as they are so intent on not hurting Wilberforce (or getting someone else to do it) that they hurt themselves.  So strong is their desire to perform the perfect victimless crime that they die for it.

It’s a weird balance here.  The Ladykillers presents us with strangely likable characters who then die before our eyes.  When one dies there is never any feeling of tragedy but rather the cinematic inevitability of an immoral character’s demise.  Their deaths are played for laughs, and for the most part they land.

So The Ladykillers feels like some kind of parable letting us know that despite your best intentions, no crime is truly victimless.

*EDIT: Louis looks like a prohibition era gangster more than Bogie.

Up Next: Blue Collar (1978), Where Is My Friend’s House? (1987), The Breaking Point (1950)

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