This Ealing comedy crime caper is quite rightly a much loved and quintessentially English classic. Released in 1951 at a time when old blighty was very much still recovering from the aftermath of the Second World War, Ealing was at the forefront of the British film industry and prided itself on its ability to bring a spot of escapist joy to a nation still haunted by the scars of war. The Lavender Hill Mob delivers this by the bucket load. At the same time that America was dominated by dark and brooding Film Noirs, The Lavender Hill Mob, with its bowler hats, impeccable manners and Bobbies on the beat, represented an inherently British type of light-hearted comedy.
The plot centres around mild-mannered and modest London bank clerk Henry Holland who has for decades been in charge of transporting and delivering vast amounts of gold bullion for the Bank of England. Fussy but effective, he has often been overlooked and, perhaps in his own eyes, unappreciated despite the impeccable work he has done. For many years now, Henry has secretly been hatching the perfect crime and has long dreamt of stealing the gold he is seemingly so dedicated to protecting. The main hitch that has long prevented him from carrying out his plan has been how to smuggle the gold abroad in order to sell it. Enter Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a fellow “honest” man who happens to own a foundry that produces holiday souvenirs.
After recruiting a couple of professional criminals to their ‘mob’, the duo carry out their perfect crime. However, somewhat inevitably, things don’t go entirely to plan and we watch as the quest for gold takes Harry and Alfred to Paris and back and even has them forced in to conning a bunch of young schoolgirls out of their Eiffel Tower souvenirs.
The story plays out as part slapstick farce and part Hitchcockian thriller. You’re never too sure if you are watching a band of bumbling idiots or criminal geniuses at work. One minute they are pulling the wool over London’s policemen, the next they are running around in circles trying to board a ferry bound home from Francais. There is a memorable chase scene towards the film’s climax when Henry and Alfred track down the final remaining Tower souvenir to, of all places, an exhibition of Police History. As they desperately swipe the item and make a break for the exit, they are chased into seemingly blind alleys and out onto the London streets by various hapless Bobbies. As the initially slapstick chase rattles along and the two men narrowly avoid capture, you suddenly realise the tone of the film has made the switch from farcical comedy to genuine tension without even breaking its stride. Such is the skill of the actors and director involved.
This tremendous swing from one extreme to another is made possible primarily through its two leads, Guinness in particular. The man who will become Obi-Wan gives a vintage performance that captures Henry’s timid demeanour as well as his devious other side. He and Pendlebury must be two of the most unlikely heist men of all time and between them they make a truly memorable movie duo.
It may only have a short runtime (around the 80 minute mark) but director Charles Crichton crams a great deal in but the hectic pace only adds to the charm of this light-hearted escapade. It is very much a film of its time and the humour may often appear quaint and dated to some, but there is no denying the film’s enduring vibrancy and comfortingly upbeat tone.
The Lavender Hill Mob is out on DVD 1st August 2011.
Director: Charles Crichton
Stars: Alec Guinness, Stanley Hollowa, Sid James
Runtime: 81 min