Friday, November 20, 2015

Before I Die # 552: The Ladykillers (1955)

This is the 552nd of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

A fairly amusing dark comedy, though not as thoroughly entertaining as I had hoped.

I had seen the misguided 2004 Coen Brothers remake, so I knew the basic story. The original is set in 1950s London, England, where a group of thieves pose as musicians who practice their string quartet in the home of the elderly and somewhat loopy Mrs. Wilberforce. They are led by the abundantly sinister Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), whose master plan involves using Mrs. Wilberforce's home, conveniently situated just above the train station, as a headquarters for a daring robbery of an incoming delivery of cash. The heist initially goes as planned, but things go awry when Mrs. Wilberforce learns of the larceny before the crooks can get the money away from the house. This forces the thieves into the grim conclusoin that Mrs. Wilberforce must be eliminated, permanently. The rest of the movie is comprised of the group deciding who will kill her and how the dark deed will be done.

While that description may sound like a horribly macabre story, rest assured that it is merely the stuff of black humor. This is a great concept, and it is not difficult to see why the Coen Brothers decided to try their hand at updating it. Alas, though the original is certainly far better than the 2004 remake, I did find it a chore to watch much of the time. Many of the scenes and situations smack of a comedy sketch that goes on a bit longer than necessary, and most of the characters, while amusing in theory and stature, lack enough memorable dialogue to make a real mark.

This crew had a lot more potential than was met, especially
given the acting talents involved.
The movie was even more of a disappointment after I had seen the name Peter Sellers in the opening credits. Though quite young at the time, he would go on to become an absolute legend of comedy, so I was hoping for an early look at this budding genius. Alas, there was nothing in the performance that demanded any of Sellers's prodigious comic talents. His character, Harry, was only mildly amusing, and it could have been played by any one of countless other actors. With so much hindsight, it seems to be one of the most obvious wastes of talent that one is likely to find. While the other characters were more interesting in theory, they were never given the script to bring the humor to life.

Now having seen them both, it seems like the original and remake were two parts of a potentially greater whole. The original had the set-up and casting right, whereas the 2004 version misfired on setting and some casting. Conversely, the 2004 version understood how to punch up the dark humor, especially when the bodies start piling up, while the original couldn't maintain the comedic element consistently. An even better comparison lies in the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, which also starred Alec Guinnes in a variety of roles. That earlier movie is a case study in dark humor, and The Ladykillers of 1955 might have been better had it taken a few lessons from it.

For those who like dark British humor, this is worth a watch, though I would advise tempered expectations.

That's 552 movies down. Only 610 to go before I can die.