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Lovable And Doomed: The Lavender Hill Mob at 60
Dickon Edwards , August 8th, 2011 09:04

Dickon Edwards marks the 60th anniversary of The Lavender Hill Mob

Crime comedies, particularly British ones, are modern fables. From The Italian Job through to Shallow Grave, In Bruges, and Four Lions, they follow the same moral template: lovable, bungling criminals who end the film paying a price. Despite all their plans and efforts, we know these straying heroes will wind up arrested, dead, injured, or at the very least empty-handed, because that's what the rules of comedy demand. 'Crime pays' is a weak punch line. The audience feels (rather aptly) robbed. For best effect, 'crime doesn't pay' is the only pay-off that works: the final joke must be on the jokers. And yet we still root for them to get away with it, because we love the thrill of escapism spiked with schadenfreude. We always have done.

It's one reason why the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob is so revered. Its charming U-certificate miscreants may be worlds away from, say, the Islamist would-be bombers in Four Lions, but the basic story is the same. The same old naughty yet funny heroes, lovable yet doomed.

Thanks to its permanence in the TV schedules (usually in the afternoon), I've seen The Lavender Hill Mob more times than I can begin to remember. And yet when I heard it was getting a digital restoration to mark its 60th anniversary, I couldn't wait to see it again. Any excuse.

Watching once more, I still delight at the premise of two honest, mild-mannered Englishmen (Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway) planning a gold bullion robbery in order to quit their demeaning jobs for good.

I still take delight at the ingenious scheme to turn the gold into souvenir Eiffel Towers in order to ship it abroad. And I still do not tire at the string of wonderful scenes: the nightmarish bit with the Escher-like Eiffel Tower staircase (pre-dating Hitchcock's Vertigo), the bit with the Satanically giggling schoolgirls, the inspired plot device over the French pronunciation of the letter 'R', the Kafkaesque routine with the French customs officials and the dry inkpad, the appearance by a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn ('Chiquita', indeed), and best of all the Welsh constable singing along to 'Old MacDonald' on the police car radios.

What's particularly dazzling about the latter scene is how the story suddenly shoves on the brakes to let the comedy take over, knowing just when to do it. Then to top it all, there's the sad but satisfying final twist. Not an unearned swindle of a twist like those of The Village or The Sixth Sense, but an honest one that makes sense without being predictable. And it's not even my favourite Ealing comedy (that would have to be The Ladykillers).

Compare it to current hit comedy flicks like Bridesmaids and its freshness remains undiminished. The jokes still make one laugh freely and loudly, the story still intrigues (it won the Oscar for best original screenplay), and the characters still connect straight to the heart, as Martin Scorsese points out in the DVD extras. We re-watch this film because we want to spend more time with the characters. Coming in at 80 minutes, it also makes me wonder why Bridesmaids needs its saggy two hours plus, diluting perfectly good jokes with a dreary feel-good plot about forgiveness. So much for Twitter ushering in an era of conciseness.

On this latest viewing of Lavender Hill Mob I notice Guinness and Holloway's curious lack of wives or girlfriends. It's the kind of relationship that more modish critics might now describe as a 'bromance' or 'homosocial'. When they break open the mould on their debut golden Eiffel Tower, these childless, women-less men give each other tender glances. “Our firstborn!” says Guinness.

One also notices a running theme of fakes and idealism, cocking a snook at the wish fulfilment of the times while being part of it. Just as Ealing films themselves are a tourist souvenir from a Britain that never really existed, here is Stanley Holloway's struggling artist, railing at being reduced to making tacky 'Present From' knick-knacks for the gift shops of the world. There's the old lady with an unlikely love of trashy American gangster novels, mirrored by our heroes' adoption of hoodlum nicknames, 'Al' and 'Dutch', like harmless overgrown schoolboys. And there's the chase in an exhibition of police history, over cardboard roof tops and fake prison cells, culminating in the accidental arrest of a constable for being dressed as a 19th century Peeler. It's nostalgia poking fun at nostalgia.

Some aspects of the production seem unthinkable now. From this latest DVD release we learn how the Bank of England told scriptwriter Tibby Clarke how best to rob itself (!), and how Clarke and the director, Charles Crichton, got into the film business by just asking for a job. No film studies courses, no months of unpaid internship making tea, no 'runner' duties. Crichton was hired as a film cutter in the early 30s just as the industry was on the rise, and learned his trade as he went along. Clarke was a magazine journalist who got chatting in a pub with Ealing bosses when they were complaining about a badly written script. He suggested to them he had a go, and they gave him a chance on the spot. Those were the days.

As for the film itself, the most dated aspect must be the two working class crooks recruited to complete the mob, played by Sid James and Alfie Bass. The ease with which they trust Guinness and Holloway to return from France with their money, deferring to them as 'honest gentlemen', is the 1950s class divide in a nutshell.

Still, even in 2011, South London criminals are romanticised by British cinema. The teenage muggers of Attack The Block become heroes to fend off an alien invasion, without entirely getting off scot free for their crimes (as per the rules). In reality, they'd just flee. As long as Britain makes crime comedy films, the spirit of Ealing will be somewhere in the mix, whether by design or default. The Lavender Hill Mob remains the blueprint.

The Lavender Hill Mob is out now on DVD and Blu-ray through StudioCanal.