Alec Guinness

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

(Criterion Streaming, November 2019) Post-war British film studio Ealing produced some solid hits, and the best of them usually managed a delicate balance between crime and comedy, executed in a debonair manner that made it all feel even more amusing. A near-exemplary illustration of this is The Lavender Hill Mob, a suitably funny take on a heist film in which a shipment of gold bullion is stolen, transformed, smuggled, pursued, and chased again. Alec Guinness stars with a bunch of other capable actors with none other than Audrey Hepburn making her (very short) movie debut in the framing device. It’s handled with what could be called a British flair for ridiculousness, complications and deadpan humour. Despite a bit of a mid-movie lull, The Lavender Hill Mob is 78 minutes of great fun—worth watching if you’re mining the Ealing comedies vein of cinema.

Oliver Twist (1948)

Oliver Twist (1948)

(On Cable TV, March 2019) I have now seen three adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist in a single year, and that is about two more than strictly necessary. That being said, this 1948 take from director David Lean is about as close to a canonical one as it gets. It’s exceptionally well directed, lavishly produced with very good black-and-white cinematography with deep use of shadows to give an extra-gloomy atmosphere. As usual for the story, this is a tale of misery piled upon misery, with the very detailed set giving a still-credible portrayal of life in gloomy low-class London. Characters die a lot, sometimes not very gracefully. The one aspect in the work I’m really not fond of, however, is the hideously racist Jewish stereotyping that Alec Guinness gives to his interpretation of Fagin—a monumentally wrong note in an otherwise strong literary adaptation. Do not, under any circumstance, prefer the atrocious Oliver! musical adaptation to this version. Sometimes, literary classics deserve the classic filmmaking adaptation treatment.

The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers (1955)

(On TV, July 2018) If you’re looking for an exemplary British black comedy, you could certainly do much worse than The Ladykillers, a deliciously dark story in which five professional criminals team up for a heist that covers every eventuality … except for their little old lady landlord. Their combined resourcefulness is no match for the bumbling ineptitude of their boarding house host, especially when they make her an unwitting part of their plan. While the heist initially goes well, things get more complicated when she discovers the plot and wants no part in it. The criminals then make one fatal mistake: they decide to kill her. But nothing will go as planned. You can guess who remains standing at the end. Katie Johnson stars as the little old lady to be killed, but the star here is Alec Guinness as a mastermind clearly outwitted, while Peter Sellers has an early role as one of the criminals. My memories of the 2004 Coen Brothers remake are far too dim to be useful, but the original British film is decent enough in its own right—perhaps predictable, but no less satisfying for it. It does help that the film was shot in colour even in mid-fifties UK, giving us a funhouse glimpse in the rather gray life of fifties London, stuck between WW2 and the Swingin’ sixties. This is now remembered as one of the best productions to come out of the original post-war Ealing Studios, as well as one of its last before the Studio was sold to the BBC in 1955. It remains a decently amusing film. 

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

(On TV, July 2018) I really should have liked Kind Hearts and Coronets a lot more than I did. For some reason, though, the film simply didn’t click. It should have—as an early example of dry British black humour, the idea of having a frustrated man killing everyone in the line of succession to a title he covets is rather amusing. The narration has an ironic kick to it as the protagonist details his plans and state of mind, while the dual romantic interests introduces a nice complication. Some of the adulterous dialogue feels decently racy even today (“You’re playing with Fire” “At least it warms me”)—in fact, reviewing quotes from the film, I’m impressed all over again by the quality of the script. Which leads me to think that the conditions in which I viewed the film (with terrible audio and bad captioning from a standard-definition channel that doesn’t really care about offering an optimal viewing experience) may have played some role in affecting my enjoyment of the film. It certainly has qualities to spare. Dennis Price is sympathetic enough as the serial murdering protagonist, while it’s hard to choose between Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood as his love interests. Meanwhile, Alec Guinness seems to be having tons of fun playing no less than nine roles in the same film, sometimes in the same scene. Yes, I think that I will revisit Kind Hearts and Coronets in the future, but only if I can be assured of a high-definition viewing with synchronized captioning—the film demands such attention.