The Ealing Comedies are amongst the best loved products of the British film industry. One of these is currently showing here in London, at the Odeon, Panton St. giving us the rare opportunity to see it on a (relatively) big screen. After handing over an eye watering £11.45, I settled down to wait. Screen 2 at Panton St is typical of any multi screen cinema and as such is comfortable enough but adds nothing to the cinema going experience.
As the lights dimmed we slipped into the seemingly endless series of trailers of “now showing” and “coming soon” films. These were a serious assault on the senses. Designed, as they were, to show off the power of digital technology. The sound, in particular, left me with the sense that there was blood trickling from my ears. I have no idea what any of those films were, except that one included rapping penguins and another featured Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher!
Eventually this madness stopped and the old familiar certification appeared on screen, assuring us that The Lavender Hill Mob was highly unlikely to offend anyone……….bliss!
Released in 1951, written by T.E.B. Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton, it is a beautifully crafted heist movie. Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is a clerk in the Bullion Office at “The Bank” who for twenty years has been responsible for the transportation of gold. His devotion to his job and his utter reliability make him appear to be the ideal man for this position, but he has a secret. He has developed the perfect plan to steal a consignment and escape from the tedium of his life. The only fly in the ointment is how to dispose of the gold. Selling it on the post war British black market is far too risky but getting it out of the country seems like an impossible task.
Enter Alfred Pendlebury (the wonderful Stanley Holloway), the new lodger at the boarding house in Lavender Hill where Henry Holland lives. A frustrated artist, Pendlebury owns a small foundry producing cheap souvenirs for the British and European holiday trade. Put two and two together and you have the basis for a very entertaining 80 minutes.
Everything works in this film. The set pieces, the robbery, the wild run down the spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower and the car chase are wonderfully handled. It is both funny and tense and all of the characters are likeable, how often can you say that!
The cast is brilliant, the two principles are well supported by Alfie Bass and Sidney James as professional thieves recruited to assist in the caper. There are many other well known names in the cast, such as John Gregson, Sidney Taffler and Michael Trubshawe and even more of those shamefully anonymous character actors from the period such as Marjorie Fielding, Clive Morton and Meredith Edwards. Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton apparently has an uncredited part although I think that I must have blinked while she was on screen, because I didn’t see her. There is even an early and quite brief appearance by Audrey Hepburn. But there is one star that hasn’t been mentioned yet.
London. This film is as old as I am and provides some wonderful footage of the Capital in the post war years. Surprisingly, Lavender Hill makes little or no contribution but there are some nice shots of Notting Hill/Dale. However, the real interest is in the City. The Bank, The Royal Exchange and most importantly the area around St Paul’s are very well portrayed. The amount of open space around the Cathedral, the result of wartime bomb damage, may well astonish some younger viewers.
So, this is not a slick, high tech, modern heist caper. There are plenty of those around and many of them are very entertaining, but this is something special. Seemingly old fashioned now, it was cutting edge in its day.
Go and see it.
From left to right - the former Bramley Arms, the site of the Old MacDonald police car crash - Lavender, you have to use you imagination for the rest of the title - St Paul's, not as depicted in the film!