The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, Charles Crichton)
There are plenty of modern films I love, but as someone whose favorite decade of cinema is the 1930s, it’s an understatement to say I feel a little out of step with the way the art and business have advanced. Nowhere is this more evident than when I eye the landscape of comedy in our current century. There was a time when I would’ve named comedies as my favorite genre of film — my favorite actor may still be Peter Sellers — and there are plenty of passionate defenses out there of what western comedy “is” in the post-Farrelly post-Apatow era. Frankly, it’s not something I’m ever likely to relate to much; I agree with Douglas Adams that it’s erroneous to consider humor and laughter somehow a lesser emotion, to be taken less seriously. But in the absence of respect for characters and abundance of constant stereotypes I see in the lion’s share of comedies, it’s hard to defend the form. How are we to glean great deep emotional substance of any sort from The Hangover? It’s not even actually funny, much less does it approach anything sublime. How, you might ask, would a comedy do that? The Lavender Hill Mob is a case study.
It’s also a famous film, though you wouldn’t really know it in the U.S. today, where it’s currently difficult to find [2018 note: no longer true!] and doesn’t really have a solid hold on the culture. In Britain, its nation of origin, things are different; it’s a deservedly celebrated part of the national culture. But it should be seen by everyone far and wide who loves having a wonderful and unforgettable time at the movies, and yes, this means you. It’s not merely the most I’ve laughed at a movie in quite some time, it’s also the most exhilarated I’ve felt during a comedy in an even longer time.
Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios was the twisted little house of black comic ruthlessness responsible for this — its two most famous projects, outside of the expertly crafted horror detour Dead of Night, are Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets starring Alec Guinness dressed as a host of different characters, which you frankly should see even before you see this, and their sole color film The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness’ teeth. During their brief but glorious heyday, they crafted demonic little cinematic barrels of laughs you couldn’t help wanting to cuddle up to and take home. Kind Hearts in particular snorts in the face of moralistic life and storytelling, featuring underneath its death and destruction a zest for living that’s deplorably harmful and contagious — it’s a masterpiece, and this movie comes close.
Guinness figures as well in Lavender Hill Mob, and here we have what may be his most nuanced performance. (Certainly a stark contrast to watching that buffoon George Lucas waste him in the gigantic shitshow Star Wars; the fact he’s most famous today primarily as Obi-Wan is one of a number of reasons I sorely wish I could clonk my generation in the head en masse.) It’s a bit less morally dubious than Kind Hearts in the sense that it doesn’t revolve around murder, but it’s still deliciously nonchalant about its promotion of robbery and conspiracy as a means to escape one’s lot in life. Guinness’ Holland is among the most perfect antiheroes in cinema, a bookish, crime story-reading embodiment of harmlessness who proves chillingly patient and adept at fashioning himself a Man to Trust, so successfully capturing the overly picky gold transport professional and the secretly brewing criminal at once you can scarcely believe your eyes and ears. Our trust in him is absolute, even as he gradually reveals the deep and irreversible nature of the crime he wishes to commit.
With the help of a manufacturer of tourist-trap souvenirs, tiny lead Eiffel Towers, and a couple of ingeniously recruited crooks, the four forming a movingly oddball team, Holland puts together an intricate scheme to rob the Bank of England. And it works, at least initially; stolen quantities of gold are molded into the near-indistinguishable Eiffel Towers, and exported in special boxes to Paris, where… well, to explain more would make little sense in print and if you have seen it you know I won’t do it justice. Let it be enough to say that it leads up to one of the most viciously wild car chases ever filmed, and to the traditional Ealing final twist of bitter black comic irony. Along it way it involves six cheerful schoolchildren and, best of all, a convention of policemen!
Guinness is outstanding, but nearly as good is Stanley Holloway as Pendlebury, the obsequious and cheerful neighbor whose trust and respect toward Holland put the story into motion. Holland and Pendlebury’s friendship is one of a number of details that put the spark of difference in this film, as it’s a genuine and honestly meaningful relationship that is fearless about any judging or criticism of its strangeness — the two have a marvelous chemistry, and both exhibit that traditional Ealing motivation: at the cost of all else, one must want to live, to live in the inaccessible purer world of our envious creation, and to always revel — even in defiance — at the joy and triumph of being alive at all.
The film is also, of course, hilarious; much of the humor comes from the situational absurdity of the bigger scenes, a constant sense of lurking treachery, and from subtle movements and behaviors that ingratiate as something human without (and this is crucial) being condescending or reductive toward any of its characters. If the Coen brothers, for instance, were to make this film today, there’s no doubt that for all the cinematic energy and pizzazz they’d bring in, they’d also reduce every side character to one lower-class stereotype or another, funny-voiced hick or gawking idiot or both at once. Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke (who won an Oscar, well deserved) believes in the basic gentle nature of all of the people he depicts, except perhaps the nefarious Holland for whom he still shows affection, and tends to take the crime elements of the story at face value without undermining them with cheapness, despite incorporating joyous nonsense like a rendition of “Old MacDonald” accidentally played over a police radio!
It’s common to bemoan a certain visual deadness in comedies. Like Hamer before him, Charles Crichton won’t permit such criticism — The Lavender Hill Mob is, with the help of the wonderful cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Raiders of the Lost Ark), shot like a grand and seamy film noir, which easily helps it stab at the underworld drabness of its vision of London while reaching for the skies as the film progresses. The extensive use of forward pans into and out of three-dimensional space is an unusual trick for the genre, and by the time the Paris sequences arrive, nearly every scene has some uncommonly gorgeous element while never distracting from the gritty and faux-gritty nature of the story itself, never attempting to become more than a caper comedy but somehow doing so anyway.
One sequence in particular defines just how far afield this film is from a normal conception of what an innocuous funny movie is supposed to do. Guinness and Holloway are chasing six girls down the spiral staircase at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and as they do so, their hats and scarves fly off and they become dizzier and dizzier at the rapid turns, defined splendidly by Slocombe with the frenetic flair of The 39 Steps or A Hard Day’s Night. The camera spins around with them, the effect intoxicating, and finally the two of them just start laughing — laughing and throwing their heads back and surrendering at the sheer strangeness and largeness of life, and collapsing on the ground in sheer undefinable ecstasy — the film is so overexcited it seems to burst out of the frame, and we’re left reeling along with it. It’s pure cinema, among the most joyous expressions of it I’ve ever seen, and it leaves every “bro” comedy at the multiplex today disintegrated into nothing.