Kino Lorber bring the Ealing Comedies stateside
As Hammer is synonymous with horror, so is Ealing with comedy, at least within the borders of the UK. While Hammer, aided by the presence of stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, found cult status overseas, there is far less appreciation for Ealing Stateside, even with the recurring presence of Alec Guinness (Star Wars, The Bridge on the River Kwai). Much of the reverence for the studio stems from a golden age beginning just after WWII, with a nation beholden to austerity and rebuilding, seeing British humor and resilience in films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. More recently, Ealing has provided support and location for the making of fare such as Shaun of the Dead, The Imitation Game, The Descent, and even Downton Abbey. Now thanks to the efforts of Kino Lorber, the output of this illustrious studio has never looked better or been so accessible, and they’re kicking off their releases with one of the finest films they ever put out, The Lavender Hill Mob.
The Men Who Broke the Bank and Lost the Cargo! Sir Alec Guinness (The Captain’s Paradise) received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his delightful performance as Henry Holland, a meek clerk who devises an ingenious plan to rob a fortune in gold bullion from his own bank. But when Henry and his odd accomplice (Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady) melt the gold into souvenir Eiffel Towers to smuggle into France, their perfect crime becomes a disastrous caper of Cockney crooks, customs chaos and an ill-timed group of schoolgirls, all leading to some of the most hilarious and unexpected surprises in criminal history.
Ealing comedies are primarily build on taking something rather mundane and stereotypically British, imbuing them with irrelevant comedy, and pushing situations into levels verging on farcical. Dry and smart, silly yet sophisticated, comedy often tinged with a dark or dangerous element. The Lavender Hill Mob is one of the finest embodiment of these ideals, a film that won the 1952 BAFTA for Best British Film, earned Alec Guinness a Best Actor Oscar nominations, and a win for T.E.B. Clarke, in Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay.
Essentially a heist/crime caper movie, kicking off with bank clerk Henry Holland (Guinness) becoming dissatisfied with his lot in life. Approaching retirement age, still single, and a long way from his aspirations of being wealthy. He concoct scheme to exploit his position and change his lot in life with the assistance of friend and amateur sculptor Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway). The plan, to hijack a van of gold bullion, melt the bars down and reforge them as paperweights shaped like the Eiffel Tower, to smuggle them into France for sale on the black market. They expand their little enterprise with the recruitment of professional criminals Lackery (Sidney James)and Shorty (Alfie Bass), but the promotion of Holland marks the first of several unforeseen challenges that cumulate with an encounter with a group of British schoolgirls who come into possession of some rather valuable souvenirs.
The Lavender Hill Mob is sharp, smart, and utterly brimming with charm. Memorable characters and moments, zippy dialogue, and an irreverent humor that permeates the whole thing. But it doesn’t sacrifice the intensity of the heist for a joke, weaving the two together brilliantly, delivering moments of suspense and action. A car chase near the film’s end rivals much of what you’d see in theaters today. Much of this stems from smart, efficient direction by director Charles Crichton, with added visual panache courtesy of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Italian Job, Rollerball, Raiders Of The Lost Ark). For those who only know Guinness from Star Wars, this will be a revelation. The man is one of the greatest actors of his, or indeed any, generation, and his work in the Ealing comedies felt like an extension of his Shakespearean roots. Flexing his acting chops, assuming a variety of roles (even playing nine members of the same family in Kind Hearts and Coronets) from a meek, retiring man, to a insidious Machiavellian type. His Oscar nomination was truly deserved. Holloway proves the perfect partner to revel in this rebellious and liberating crime scheme, while James (of the Carry On series) and Bass add the sort of texture crucial to a film of this sort. You even get delightful little turns from Robert Shaw (The Sting, Jaws) and Audrey Hepburn. It’s a film brimming with character that elevates an already sparking script.
Kino Lorber deliver a transfer resulting from a brand new 2K scan and restoration. Detail impresses, as does contrast and density, the film doesn’t look overly processed, retaining a natural grain, with no real signs of any damage or artifacts. I haven’t ever seen the film look this good. Extra features are very well represented:
- Audio Commentary by Film Historian Jeremy Arnold: A very high quality commentary from Arnold, that is not only well informed/researched, but also clearly driven by an enthusiasm for the film. Plenty of info on the history of Ealing, the production itself, details on the cast and crew, and tales about the shoot
- Introduction by Filmmaker Martin Scorsese: A rather gleeful introduction from the self-avowed Ealing fan
- Good Afternoon: Mavis Nicholson Interviews Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke: The award winning writer opens up about his contributions to this, and a number of other Ealing projects. A warm, entertaining, and informative interview
- Audio Interview with Director Charles Crichton: Runs just over 10 minutes but still manages to get some nice tidbits about the film in there.
- Theatrical Trailers: For this film and a number of other Guinness ventures
The Bottom Line
The Lavender Hill Mob is a a jewel of Ealing, and of British cinema in general. Undeniably a clearly a product of it’s era, but its film that feels as fresh as the day it was first released, combining wit, thrills, and action, into a masterly constructed heist movie. Just a joy of a film that deserves your attention and every plaudit heaped upon it.
The Lavender Hill Mob is available via Kino Lorber from September 3rd