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Mr. Holland's criminal opus
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE LAVENDER HILL MOB from Optimum's Sid James Collection, by Slarek
 

The term classic is a tricky beast, thrown around like critical confetti when referring to older films and applied willy-nilly to pretty much every comedy that Ealing Studios turned out during their golden period. It's not hard to see why. Collectively these films are cinema to be treasured, and boast more invention, better performances and more genuinely funny scenes than the combined weight of just about every comedy film made in the UK since about 1980, and maybe earlier (I'm unwilling to go too far back on the strength of Life of Brian alone). The Lavender Hill Mob has proved a particular nostalgic favourite and to revisit it after a gap of several years is to be happily reminded of why. And odd though it may seem for an old cynic like me to say, but a sizeable part of its immense charm lies not in any rule-breaking daring, but in it's quintessential Englishness.

Alec Guinness plays Holland, a pedantically efficient bank employee whose principal task is to oversee the transportation of gold bars from the smelting house to the bank, a job he has been doing with contented efficiency for twenty years. But his unassuming appearance conceals a secret dream, to steal the gold and spirit it out of the country, allowing him to enjoy a lazily luxurious retirement. We're led to believe at the film's start that he eventually succeeds – the opening scene finds him in a South American bar, where his cheques are instantly and enthusiastically cashed and generous tips are handed out to just about everyone who passes. The rest is all flashback, a story told to his bar-room companion of how this humble bank employee came to mastermind the biggest gold robbery in British history.

Holland's first task is to devise a method of smuggling the loot out of the country, which he finds thanks to Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a newly arrived fellow tenant at The Balmoral Private Hotel, a grandly named guest house and forerunner to the abode inhabited by Guinness and his gang in Ealing's The Ladykillers four years later. Pendlebury runs a company that makes Eiffel Tower shaped paperweights, which are cast in lead and then painted gold for export to France (itself an amusing but still valid concept – during the last World Cup I wondered just how many of those patriotic sports fans who stuck little English flags on their cars took the trouble to see what country they were made in). Pendlebury is weary of his trade and it doesn't take much to get him on board. All they need now is a couple of professional criminals to assist with the robbery and transportation, for which they effectively advertise by having loud conversations in public places about a safe with a faulty lock and the money that lies unprotected within. The ruse lands them accomplices in the shape of professional thieves Shorty (Alfie Bass) and Lackery (Sid James).

While a lack of realism might handicap other films, Ealing comedies embraced and made a virtue of it. The England of Ealing is a land of almost fairytale innocence, where the police are never too sharp and the criminals are likeable and trustworthy to a man. Only in an Ealing comedy would a burglar like Lackery take a packed lunch on a job in case he has to stay hidden for an extended period, carry his press clippings to impress potential employers, cheerfully exchange robbery stories with a fellow criminal, or be unable to go to France to collect his share of the loot because his wife won't let him. The police are quaintly slow off the mark, never connecting a gold robbery in which Holland was the chief witness to the gold coloured statues being exported by a man who lodges at the same address, and investigating Detective Farrow (John Gregson) has to hear the word "France" on three separate occasions before he realises that there might be a connection between the incidents.

The film's most famous sequence is a visual tour de force, as Holland and Pendlebury arrive at the latter's Eiffel Tower souvenir shop to discover that a number of the gold statues have been sold to a party of English schoolgirls. As the pair run down the stairs of the tower, their panic mutating into giggling hysteria and articles of clothing discarded and caught magically by the wind, the tower itself rotates around the camera in a dizzying combination of camera movements, effects work and niftily designed sets, which on the big screen must have left audiences as brain-boggled as the two characters. This drift towards farce includes a lunatic sequence at the French customs, and reaches a peak with the one girl who refuses to sell her statue back to the two men – as they follow her, the absurdity of the odds stacked against them just continues to build, leading to a scene in which they somehow manage to give an army of determined police the slip at a packed exhibition in the Hendon police training school.

The casting and performances are a delight. Alec Guinness's mild mannered bank clerk turned criminal mastermind is another of those roles that he makes completely his own, full of amusing little bits of business and armed with a similar speech impediment ("many a wascal would have wisked his all for half a million") to the one employed by Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian twenty-eight years later. Stanley Holloway is typically and enjoyably just that few notches larger than life as Pendlebury, while Sid James and Alfie Bass provide lively back-up as gang recruits Lackery and Shorty. As ever with Ealing, particular attention has been paid to even the smallest supporting roles, which litter the film with sometimes hilarious offbeat moments, from the old landlady whose knowledge of criminal slang befuddles the interviewing policemen ("Who works the hoist rackets in this territory?" – "Beg pardon, lady?") to the beat cop who unknowingly hitches a lift on the running board of Holland and Pendlebury's stolen police car and heartily sings along to Old MacDonald Had a Farm, which is being inadvertently broadcast over the vehicle's police radio.

But as with all of the Ealing greats, The Lavender Hill Mob is much more than just a showcase for some fine comedy performances. In these pre-auteur days the filmmakers were rarely credited to the same degree as the actors, but they deserved to be and certainly would be if a film of such narrative and structural efficiency were to appear nowadays from a British studio. T.E.B. Clarke's smart screenplay keeps the story moving briskly, though never at the expense of character or amusing asides, while Charles Crichton's direction, Douglas Slocombe's cinematography (which is dotted with interesting angles) and Seth Holt's editing drive the film forward without seemingly wasting a second of screen time.* This is especially evident in the madcap pursuit of Holland and Pendlebury in police radio cars, where a breathless pace is achieved without the excessive coverage and machine-gun editing techniques that have homogenised similar sequences in so many more recent films.

All of which results in a work that is not only enormous fun to watch and re-watch, but one that manages to be both unreal and yet somehow true to the charmingly innocent world view that it helped to create, one whose daftness is both sophisticated and rewarding, and whose ending is so neatly executed that it's pre-arrival visibility doesn't matter a jot. The Lavender Hill Mob is a small-scale joy, the sort of film whose time has come and gone and that we are probably never to see the like of again, but whose witty, deliciously played innocence even the most world-weary of us can enjoy and treasure.

sound and vision

Correctly framed in its original 1.37:1 ratio, this is a decent though not prize-winning transfer. Contrast and black levels are very good and detail very reasonable for the film's age, but there is a slight but visible jitter to the picture in a couple of places and grain is a little more evident than I would have expected. The print is very clean, with almost no dust spots or blemishes.

The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is in surprisingly good shape considering the film's age, with only a hint of background hiss in quieter scenes. The limited dynamic range is only really evident on some of the music.

extra features

Original Trailer (2:16)
Not in as good shape as the feature, a nevertheless intriguing and amusing inclusion.

summary

The best film in The Sid James Collection by some distance, it's also available separately and it will thus be down to individual taste whether you go for the stand-alone or the set. It's certainly a film every true comedy fan should own and one that has a high re-view factor.




* All of the names here have have an impressive history in British cinema. T.E.B. Clarke also penned comedy favourites Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1963), the former one of Ealing's most highly regarded works. Seth Holt also edited The Titfield Thunderbolt and landmark British neo-realist drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and as a director made The Nanny (1965) and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971), two of the finer horror films of the period. Douglas Slocombe went on to become one of the film industry's most successful and respect cinematographers, and includes amongst his considerable credits The Servant (1963), Dance of the Vampires (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Director Charles Crichton's career has spanned film and television, and includes The Titfield Thunderbolt, Danger Man, The Avengers and A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
The Lavender Hill Mob
Sid James Collection

UK 1951
77 mins
director
Charles Crichton
starring
Alec Guinness
Stanley Holloway
Sid James
Alfie Bass
John Gregson

DVD details
region 2
video
1.37:1 OAR
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
14 May 2007
review posted
21 May 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews