It hardly makes sense to think of it as a rerelease, as the 1955 crime caper classic from Ealing Studios is perennially being revisited on screen, and in “Best Of” lists and there have been a number of adaptations, chiefly a middling but well-intentioned remake from the Coen brothers in 2004 featuring Tom Hanks as the mastermind professor first played by Alec Guinness.
The original – now getting a 4K restoration – is subversive, hilarious and as English as Elgar. That’s despite being written by the expatriate American William Rose and directed by American-born Alexander Mackendrick. Both bring a street-smart American snap to the movie, but with an exquisitely English sensibility: a mixture of cynicism with guileless innocence. The comedy works because it is as superbly constructed as a deadly-serious noir thriller – there are weirdly distinct echoes of Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Reed’s The Third Man. What Kind Hearts And Coronets did for the serial killer genre, The Ladykillers did for the heist movie (I’ve always preferred it to the equally famous The Lavender Hill Mob.)
At 76, veteran stage and screen performer Katie Johnson had a breakthrough into stardom with this film, playing the seraphically gentle but formidably opinionated widow Mrs Wilberforce who has a room to rent in her crazily lopsided house – detached and isolated in the middle of London’s gloomy, smoky King’s Cross, like a cottage in a fairytale forest.
This room is taken by the snaggle-toothed “Professor” Marcus (Guinness), who claims he needs it as a rehearsal space for his Boccherini string quartet, who are actually a gang of crooks planning to rob a mail train coming into the nearby station: cringing conman “Major” Courtney (Cecil Parker), ruthless killer Louis (Herbert Lom), sneery teddy boy Harry (Peter Sellers) and punch-drunk ex-boxer “One-Round” (Danny Green). But when the aghast old lady accidentally discovers what they are up to, the gang realise that they must silence her – permanently. Bizarrely, to keep up the musical pretence, the Professor has to praise the brutish Louis’s “timbre” in front of his new landlady, and of course it is the movie’s own timbre, its tonal control of genteel Englishness and imminent violence, which makes it so good.
Killing Mrs Wilberforce is unthinkable for them because they are as submissive in her disapproving presence as any bunch of shame-faced schoolboys. She is the most potent authority figure they have ever known. “One Round” instinctively calls her “Ma’am” which with Freudian simplicity later becomes “Mum”. And Mrs Wilberforce herself is the most profound believer in English law and justice. I can never watch her performance without thinking of the English gentlemen John Betjeman wrote about in his poem Death of King George V, who “never cheated, never doubted”.
There is a lovely melancholy moment when (while still unaware of their nefarious intentions) Mrs Wilberforce says that the men’s supposed playing of Boccherini reminds her of a quintet playing at her 21st birthday party in Pangbourne which was interrupted when someone announced the death of Queen Victoria and everyone went home. Mrs Wilberforce recounts this rather pathetic episode lost in thought, but without any self-pity or complaint: of course the Queen’s death meant that a party was inappropriate. But it also shows that her life has been one of self-denial, which makes the final moments all the more amusing.
The thieves fall out among themselves, of course, and the way that this is written and constructed is as satisfying and plausible as any serious crime picture. Guinness’s professor keeps his oleaginous calm, and only verges on anger once, when Louis sneers that his plan sounds like something someone “dreamed up in a booby hatch” – a brilliantly concise way of sketching in the Professor’s entire backstory, although it is a gag of its time. Eventually the Professor will have to explain to Mrs Wilberforce why there is no point in trying to report their crime to the authorities because the insurance company will already have covered it by putting a farthing on everyone’s policies so no one has really been hurt. (Since the Great Train Robbery of 1963, however, cinema audiences will possibly have noticed that the Ladykiller gang also coshed the security van driver.)
It is a superbly elegant comedy; even after 65 years, it still kills.
• The Ladykillers is in cinemas from 23 October.