The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951.
Directed by Charles Crichton.
Starring Alec Guiness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James and Alfi Bass.
A bank clerk finds himself drawn into a gold smuggling racket.
You may as well know something right now. You will have to get a new mouth after watching The Lavender Hill Mob, because the one you’ve got will have worn out completely from grinning ear to ear for 78 minutes. It’s not just that this film is funny. It is spleen-shatteringly funny, but somehow, that doesn’t quite cover how relentlessly joyful and excitable the whole experience is.
We start at the end, of course. Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is a man taking very well to being filthy rich. He dishes out banknotes like they were jelly babies; a radiant Audrey Hepburn (in her first film role) pops over for a quick kiss and some walking around money. Holland wants to tell his story to somebody, but it’s not entirely clear who this person is. He might be from the press, but there’s not a notepad in sight. Never mind. Guinness launches into the story in a rather charming voice, wobbling his ‘r’s like an elephant in hipster jeans.
It seems Holland wasn’t always a South American armchair philanthropist; once upon a time one year ago, he was a bank clerk manning the bullion van. A “non-entity”, playing the long game, biding his time for a chance to get his hands on the Bank of England’s gold reserves. He has a plan all worked out in his head, but he can’t do it alone, and so he’s stuck with his measly six shillings a week.
Holland is a shrewd, patient man with a taste for dry wit and a heart of gold. His only friend, so far we can see, is Mrs Clark (Marjorie Fielding), a spinster with a voracious appetite for pulp crime fiction. He reads her ‘Look Swell In A Shroud’, a paperback with lines like “…and then I glimpsed something that had my underwear creeping on me, like it had legs.” Mrs Clark nods sagely. “I know that feeling well.”
Then Alfred Pendlebury turns up. If Stanley Holloway ever had more fun playing a character, he never showed it half as much as he does playing Pendlebury. This mad, verbose art lover is large and in charge, spicing up Holland’s life no end. In each other they find the perfect friend and the ideal business partner. After all, Pendlebury’s refinery for turning lead into Eiffel Tower paperweights is no different to the bank turning gold into bullion bars…
Director Charles Crichton takes on the classic Ealing theme of unlikely criminals from here on with style and ease. His comedy world of crime, where guns fire a stick of rock and thieves miss their last train home, chimes in with the British audience’s work-a-day experiences. Crichton turns us all into Mrs Clark, lapping up the romance of the criminal world, caught in the thrill of the chase.
Every scene (and it is every scene, not just the best ones) is wrought with schoolboy mischief of one sort or another. T.E.B. Clarke’s script has enormous fun undermining and outsmarting authority at every turn. Policemen chase each other in circles; the crowned heads of Scotland Yard are led around blindfold by a gleeful Henry Holland.
The supporting cast, featuring Alfie Bass and a pre-Carry On Sid James, are indispensible, but it’s Alec Guinness who owns this film. He plays his part with characteristic subtlety, the downtrodden everyman who gets his chance to shine, just once. We totally, utterly believe in Henry Holland. We want him to win against all the odds. Star Wars fans will know that any line Alec Guinness utters becomes instantly quotable; the same is twice as true here. No other man on Earth could shout “Mess me up! It’s essential!” to a pair of professional thieves and make it sound every bit as truthful and hilarious as Guinness does.
DVD copies of The Lavender Hill Mob have been around since the dawn of the disc, no arguments there. By now though, they’re in a terrible old state, worn out by long and repeated use. So stop hoarding round the one library copy that doesn’t skip or freeze or explode all over your living room; this release is here to save the day. Like the incomparable, Whisky Galore, it’s been given a buff and a shine and a whole boxful of toys to go with it this time. Truly, Ealing DVDs are easily scratched, but they will soon be back, and in greater numbers.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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