▶︎ The Ladykillers 4K restoration is in cinemas from 23 October 2020. A 4K UHD Blu-ray five-disc collector’s edition is released on 9 November.

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955) marked the end of an era in more ways than one. It wasn’t only the last of the great Ealing comedies, but was the last film to be released by Ealing before the studios were sold to the BBC and Michael Balcon led his depleted team away to live out a sad, ghostly afterlife in a corner of the MGM lot at Borehamwood. 

Like so many worthwhile films, The Ladykillers is at least partly about the circumstances of its own making. The rickety, dilapidated little house in St Pancras with its air of faded gentility can be seen as standing as much for Ealing – that most English of studios – as for England, two once-proud institutions in a state of what then appeared to be (and in Ealing’s case, actually was) terminal decline.

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This feature originally appeared in our July 2004 issue

Both Mackendrick and his screenwriter William Rose were semi-outsiders, able to adopt a detached view of the country they lived in. Mackendrick was born in the US and brought up in Scotland; Rose was a native of Missouri who had moved to Britain in his early twenties. The two shared a common attitude to England: a mixture of affection and exasperation, of amusement and infuriation at the seemingly incurable national attachment to picturesque inefficiency. 

In Genevieve (1953), also scripted by Rose, a young couple stuck in a nightmare Brighton hotel explode with fury on discovering that hot water is only available, at prior request, for some 30 minutes a day. The manageress (Joyce Grenfell) is astounded at their reaction. “Nobody’s ever complained before,” she gasps, while a little old lady (Edie Martin, later to play one of Mrs Wilberforce’s teatime guests in The Ladykillers) totters up to enquire: ‘’Are they Americans?”

As Mackendrick acknowledged years later, The Ladykillers is “obviously a parody of Britain in its subsidence. That we were all aware of at a certain level. But it was never openly discussed, and it would have been fatal to discuss it.” All the film’s imagery – its lovingly detailed paraphernalia of lopsided cottages (situated in a dead-end street), steam trains, chintzy parlours and little old ladies in pastel dresses and floral hats – conjures up a post-imperial Britain hopelessly resistant to change, inextricably mired in the faded detritus of the Victorian era. (The link is made explicit in a key speech from Katie Johnson’s Mrs Wilberforce, recalling her 21st birthday party, “When someone came in and said the old Queen had passed away.”) 

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The Ladykillers (1955)

But this superannuated Britain embodied by Mrs W, outwardly enfeebled and moribund, proves unexpectedly tenacious. The speech by Alec Guinness’s Professor Marcus, as he descends into babbling lunacy, seems to carry a hint of the filmmakers’ own delighted, appalled reaction to the indestructible figure they’d conjured up. “We’ll never be able to kill her, Louis. She’ll always be with us, for ever and ever and ever, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Mackendrick was always the most politically aware of the Ealing directors, and in the films he made there it’s possible to trace the growing disillusionment, from a non-conformist left-wing viewpoint, of someone who voted for change in the crucial general election of 1945 hoping to see a new social dispensation, only to watch all the old class-ridden, tradition-encrusted barriers against change come creaking back into place. 

Whisky Galore! (1949), the most light-hearted of his films, merely pokes fun at the dour bureaucratic excesses of the post-war Labour government with its regime of austerity and ration-books. But in his second feature The Man in the White Suit (released in 1951, the year in which Labour was ousted from power by Churchill’s Tories) Mackendrick created Ealing’s only true political satire.

Satire, Mackendrick once observed, is “the snarl behind the grin”. Most other Ealing films (1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets excepted) are too essentially good-natured to snarl; but there’s real anger underpinning the comedy of The Man in the White Suit. It depicts a world where virtually everyone operates within rigid, predetermined patterns of thought; where bosses and workers have taken up entrenched positions of mutual suspicion and contempt; where the supposedly progressive cadres of the left reveal themselves, when it comes to it, as no less hostile to change than the moneyed interests of the right. 

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The forces of enlightened liberalism, represented by mill-owner Alan Birnley (and played by Cecil Parker, with Mackendrick’s encouragement, as a sly portrait of Ealing studio boss Michael Balcon), are exposed as bumbling and ineffectual, and disinterested science (represented by Guinness’s naive young chemist) as recklessly indifferent to the consequences of its work. (The film had its origins in Mackendrick’s attempt to find a way of making a comedy about the invention of nuclear weapons.) 

All this, as Mackendrick remarked, would “if made seriously” constitute “a horrendous attack on contemporary society. But I hope we did it with enough good humour that the undercurrents in it – which are also fairly melancholy, if you like are not oppressive.”

Mandy (1952), Mackendrick’s only non-comedy at Ealing, shares the same bleak view of British society, with the accumulated weight of ossified convention bearing down, in this case, on a young deaf girl. Mandy’s physical handicap shows up the mental handicaps of the adults who surround her; she can’t hear, but they can’t or rather won’t see, and her mother has to fight to rescue the girl from the rigid family structure that oppresses them both. 

In The ‘Maggie’ (1954) the underlying tensions in the story all but sink the comedy, with the crew of an ancient puffer-boat, supposed representatives of freedom and independence, shown up as mercenary, irresponsible, incompetent and again, hopelessly mired in a stagnant way of life.

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Katie Johnson as Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers (1955)

So it’s easy enough to see The Ladykillers as Mackendrick’s sardonic, shrugging farewell to 1950s Ealing and 1950s England – having completed it, he left for Hollywood and the noir acridities of Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Some commentators, indeed, have floated it as a very specific political parable. In his definitive study Ealing Studios Charles Barr suggests an ingenious (if partly tongue-in-cheek) reading: “The gang are the postwar Labour government. Taking over ‘the House’ they gratify the Conservative incumbent by their civilised behaviour (that nice music) and decide to use at least the facade of respectability for their radical programme of redistributing wealth…

“Their success is undermined by two factors, interacting: their own internecine quarrels, and the startling, paralysing charisma of the ‘natural’ governing class, which effortlessly takes over from them again in time to exploit their gains (like the Conservatives taking over power in 1951, just as the austerity years come to an end). The gang are a social mix, like Labour’s: a mix of academic (Alec Guinness), ex-officer (Cecil Parker), manual worker (Danny Green), naive youth (Peter Sellers) and hard-liner (Herbert Lom).”

Barr’s reading, elegant and diverting though it is, doesn’t quite mesh with the imagery of the film, since here the gang, no less than Mrs Wilberforce, seem essentially figures from the past. Professor Marcus, with his mincing, swooping gestures and vampiric teeth, appears a 19th-century construct by Bram Stoker out of Wilkie Collins; his confederates hail from the never-never London underworld of the Pabst/Brecht The Threepenny Opera. 

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The Ladykillers (1955)

The whole gang, in fact, look remarkably like something that Mrs Wilberforce, dozing off in her cluttered front parlour with her knick-knacks and parrots, might have conjured in a dream, drawing on confused memories of penny-dreadfuls and gaslit melodramas. Which would be appropriate enough, since The Ladykillers had its origins in a dream: William Rose always maintained that he had dreamed the story one night, “whole and complete”.

The story’s provenance delighted Mackendrick. “The fact that it was something Bill had quite literally dreamed up really entranced me. Dreams are a wonderful source of imagery for movies.” 

Even better, it allowed him to cut loose from Ealing’s cherished tradition of documentary-based realism and treat the story as a fable, full of cartoon characters. “The characters are all caricatures, fable figures; none of them is real for a moment. Indeed, one of the stylistic problems is that it’s very dangerous when you let a single note of reality creep into something that’s as inflated, in terms of near-fantasy, as this. You have to keep within the enclosed, fabulous world.”

There’s certainly a strong cartoon element to The Ladykillers, where each of the characters arrives ready-labelled in the visual equivalent of capital letters: The Little Old Lady, The Mad Professor, The Genteel Con-Man, The Dumb Bruiser and so on. Even the violence, which shocked many contemporary critics, has a comic-strip quality about it. People are pushed off buildings, or banged over the head, and die instantly, with no blood or mangled limbs to disturb the joke. 

And as in the cartoon world, certain characters are set up to be immune to harm. No matter what the forces ranged against her, Mrs Wilberforce is as invulnerable as the Road Runner.

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Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Alec Guinness and Alexander Mackendrick on set of The Ladykillers

Mackendrick liked to describe himself as “a political cartoonist manqué”’. A gifted artist, trained at Glasgow School of Art, with an exceptional talent for lightning sketches, he did in fact work as a political cartoonist for a while, drawing propaganda pieces to undermine German military morale during his war service in Italy. Then just after the war he collaborated briefly with Halas Batchelor on an abortive scheme to distribute a weekly animated political cartoon. 

This frustrated talent was redirected into his films, most obviously into The Man in the White Suit and more obliquely into The Ladykillers. In the case of the latter, the obliqueness was probably a deliberate tactic since he suspected a more direct approach would run him into trouble. Michael Balcon had been alarmed by White Suit’s cutting edge and Mackendrick related how, while The Ladykillers was in preparation, “Mick had me into his office and said, ‘I want to tell you that I’ve given a promise on your behalf that there’s no satire in this one.”’

The promise had almost certainly been made to John Davis, the much-feared MD of the Rank Organisation, which distributed all Ealing’s films. Casting his eye over Rose’s script, Davis had detected elements that disturbed him. “It is, of course,” he wrote to Balcon, “a very satirical document. I suppose the success or failure of filming this subject will depend upon how it is played, as broad comedy or strong satire – as the latter I do not think it would be a great success.” (Since Davis’ personal ideal of broad comedy was the films of Norman Wisdom, it’s probably as well that his views, for once, didn’t prevail.)

Fastidiously holding the word ‘comedy’ between inverted commas as if with tweezers, Davis continued: “I would also assume that you will ensure that the ending of the ‘comedy’ is materially altered, because at the present time it shows Scotland Yard and its officials in a very bad light.” Balcon replied soothingly that “our relations with Scotland Yard as a result of The Blue Lamp are quite satisfactory and … they will have no objection to our having good humoured fun at their expense.”

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The original release poster for The Ladykillers (1955)

The main satirical thrust of The Ladykillers, though, seems to have escaped Davis’s notice: there’s no hint in his correspondence with Balcon that he saw the film as mocking not just the forces of law and order but the country as a whole. 

Nor did the critics of the period. Opinions differed widely over whether the film’s shift into black comedy and multiple murder worked: for some reviewers like Paul Dehn in the News Chronicle, “the mood falters and … the comedy has collapsed like a house of cards “; Virginia Graham in the Spectator found the climax “in thoroughly bad taste”. In Sight & Sound, though, Penelope Houston hailed “a comic idea of splendid, savage absurdity”, reckoning the film “the most consistently ruthless comic fantasy produced by a British studio since Kind Hearts and Coronets”; Dilys Powell in the Sunday Times even wished for “a shade more of the macabre; it would be a better film if it were blacker.”

But no reviewer seemed to sense the film’s allegorical level, or to see it as what it now inescapably appears: an ironic portrait of a country slipping into post-imperial desuetude, clinging to outworn conventions and dreaming of past glories. Perhaps it needed the distancing effect of time for Mackendrick’s political subtext to show through as clearly as it does now. 

Yet it’s this satirical element – still not without relevance in Britain of the 21st century – and the dark tinge of the comedy that have kept The Ladykillers fresh when so many of its Ealing stablemates have faded into a faintly musty period charm.