The Ladykillers (1955 Ealing, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers) (1955)
William Rose’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay for The Ladykillers cast Alec Guinness as the rather sinister “musician” who takes lodgings with elderly Katie Johnson. In fact Guinness is the leader of a gang of crooks – Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers and Danny Green – who successfully pull off a robbery at King’s Cross Station.
Johnson unwittingly helps them bring the loot back to her house but when she discovers the money Guinness decides she has to be killed. However, the thieves, unable to agree who should do the dark deed, fall out and kill each other and Guinness finally gets his comeuppance, leaving Johnson with £60,000.
The Ladykillers was the last Ealing Comedy and premiered at the same time that it was announced the studios were to be sold to the BBC – a suitable high note on which to end the run of classic British comedies. Guinness’s uniquely weird, very funny performance earned him considerable praise and he was well served by Parker, Lom, Sellers and Green and by entertaining cameos from Jack Warner and Frankie Howerd. Guinness lost out in the award stakes, however, to 77-year-old Katie Johnson who had played only minor roles since her screen debut in 1932’s After Office Hours. This was her finest role and her delightful scene-stealing performance rightly earned her the British Oscar for Best Actress.
The veteran director of such Ealing classics as The Man in the White Suit and Whisky Galore, Mackendrick’s comment on the film is illuminating: “To be frivolous about frivolous matters, that’s merely boring. To be frivolous about something that’s in some way deadly serious, that’s true comedy.”