Lavender Hill Mob: classic film rereleased :review
A restored print of The Lavender Hill Mob is in cinemas from July 22nd. Blu-ray/DVD is released August 1st.
British cinema of the 1950s is much maligned as an artistic wasteland. The villain of the piece was, of course, the advent of television as working-class people began to invest in televisions in increasing numbers. But it isn’t simply sociological developments which have led to this conclusion. The quality of film produced in the UK during this period was often quite dreadful particularly in comparison to the decades that preceded and followed – the 1930s and 1940s were representative of innovation and distinctive cinematic exploits while the 1960s saw the rise of social realism, culminating in the likes of Lindsay Anderson and Nicolas Roeg’s groundbreaking efforts.
However, the 60th anniversary of the Ealing comedy caper The Lavender Hill Mob suggests there are some diamonds amidst the dross. Eailng was at its peak in the 1940s, firing out smash after smash such as Hue and Cry (1946) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) and was still in a healthy state by the time of The Lavender Hill Mob‘s release in 1951. Filmed on location in London, the re-release showcases the city at a time when the Festival of Britain was in full swing and the fall of Clement Atlee’s Labour government brought an end to a period of relentless cultural reconstruction. By this period, the British public were inundated with a stream of instructive newsreels, books, pamphlets and exhibitions, all intent on re-imagining the urban environment as the foundation of a newly harmonious community.
London during this period of flux is wonderfully preserved in the film which has retained a curious charm, aided by Alec Guinness’ remarkably deft performance as Henry “Dutch”Â Holland, an ostensibly mild-mannered bank clerk who turns himself into a criminal overnight, masterminding the theft of gold bullion with the intent of selling it abroad for millions. Roping in louche, Shakespeare-quoting souvenir maker Alfred Pendlebury, (Stanley Holloway) and Shorty and Lackerty, two token criminals (played by the wonderful Sid James and Alfie Bass), the unlikely quartet steal the bullion and reconfigure it as Eiffel Tower paperweights which they smuggle to Paris to be sold on the black market. However, they never counted on the presence in Paris of a group of seemingly permanently shrieking girls on a school trip from St. Christopher’s in Hendon, six of whom inadvertently purchase the gold-plated paperweights. Thus ensues a series of set pieces, as the quartet’s plans begin to unravel, culminating in a brilliantly crafted, dizzying spin down through the iron steps of the Eiffel Tower, prefiguring James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo some seven years later.
Looking at the comedy now, director Charles Crichton crafted a joyous, often riotous celebration of innocent yet anti-social behaviour. Holland and Pendlebury traverse a gloriously photographed London, zipping in and out of tube stations as the city teems with men and women in uniform: a never-ending stream of policemen, besuited City workers and aforementioned schoolgirls populate the streets amidst the unravelling of our criminals heist. Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke deservedly bagged an Academy Award for his script which originally began life as a straight ahead drama before Clarke noted the potential for humour and altering the story to fully exploit the comic potential.
The Ealing comedies began to lose their way later in the decade, as the films ethos became permanently associated with a rigid style and conservative ethos which failed to acknowledge both new aesthetic and technological dimensions and reflected a wholly un-dynamic view of society. But The Lavender Hill Mob shines not only due to the brisk pacing of the script and direction but also due to the effortless comic turns by Guinness and Holloway. Also watch out for an early appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the enigmatic Chiquita at the film’s beginning.