The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

D: Charles Crichton
S: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway

By the time The Lavender Hill Mob was released in 1951, the pressure of the post-war years had begun to ease slightly. Though poverty and rationing were more than just folk memory, the pinch was not being felt as strongly. Ealing Studios had enjoyed a decade of success with gentle comedies distinguished by their capacity to touch the public consciousness and a serio-comic (re)construction of Britishness suited to the mindset of post-war society.

The films featured irrepressible entrepreneurs, small communities which triumphed over the encroachments of capitalism, and cheerful, good-natured people whose optimism and simplicity usually won out over seemingly impossible odds. Since 1947, the studio had enjoyed increasing critical and commercial success with films such as Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore (1949), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), all of which garnered international recognition and contributed to the profile of the British film industry and to producer Michael Balcon.

The Lavender Hill Mob was one in the last of the famous cycle of comedies to retain its contemporaneity, before Ealing itself became part of a quaintly nostalgic and retrospective British cinema which revelled in the glories of past achievements rather than dealing with current society.

The film is not sentimental about its portrayal of Englishness, and though its tongue is firmly in its cheek, it calmly details how two ordinary middle aged gentlemen (Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway) plan and execute the 'perfect' crime (albeit with the assistance of two more traditionally 'hardened' criminals, namely Sidney James and Alfie Bass).

In a world of routine and quintessentially British gentility, Guinness has always lived a hidden fantasy life fuelled by detective stories and the promise of one day breaking free of the way he is seen by others. Only when Holloway moves into the boarding house he shares with several other middle aged bachelors does the flash of inspiration drive him to actually go through with what he has long idly dreamt of.

In a beautifully detailed script, T.E.B. Clarke carefully portrays the shift from order to chaos as Guiness moves from an invisible drone in a city of men in bowler hats to the mastermind behind the biggest robbery in the history of the State (in new pounds, no less!). This is matched by Guinness' superb characterisation of the drab bank clerk with supposedly no imagination or ambition. The character is always tinged with a faint arrogance and a sense of an inner life which remains just below the surface which comes fully to the fore as the film progresses. Director Charles Crichton handles the early scenes very delicately, and the film maintains a careful balance between farce, satire, and gentle fun.

Though in its latter stages the film degenerates into a series of comic chases (which may be seen as the inevitable explosion of full blown chaos: an impression reinforced by the almost modernist portrayal of the characters' panic as they run down the steps of the Effiel Tower in pursuit of a group of schoolgirls who threaten to blow the whole plan), it is full of well chosen visual cues and cleverly selected dialogue which remind viewers that little of what happens is random.

Like any great comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob examines the results of an anarchic presence in a stable social order. Unlike many more traditionally 'comedian-centred' comedies however, it is canny enough to suggest that rebellion must always come from within, and that it is the presumption of the system itself which produces the desire for escape and disobedience. Much of the humour revolves around inappropriate behaviour, or perhaps more accurately, appropriate behaviour at inappropriate moments for the characters, whose sympathies we share. Witness for example the scene where Guinness and Holloway attempt to board a boat bound for England, but must go through the formalities of customs and ticketing even as the gangplank is being pulled away.

Though less brutal than Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers (1955), and less explicitly political than Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob is probably one of the most exuberant and playful of the Ealing films, capped by a brilliant turn by Guinness and a novel resolution which sneakily suggests that it's not so much the end that matters as the idea of rebellion itself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.