Film reviews

The Ladykillers (1955) – Blu-ray Review

From Studiocanal comes a new release of the 1955 Ealing Studios classic, The Ladykillers, with a new, fresh, vibrant 4k master.

Set in London’s Kings Cross, the film tells of an elderly widow, Mrs Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson).  An eccentric lady, she spends her time visiting the police station (with yet another police role for The Blue Lamp and Dixon of Dock Green‘s Jack Warner), to pass on her various suspicions and stories about the neighbours.

Looking to rent out a room in her house, she is visited by Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), a sinister character looking to take the vacancy.  Moving in, he assembles Major Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker, as the surprisingly slow-witted con man), Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers as a Cockney spiv), “One Round” Lawson (Danny Green as the punch drunk ex-boxer) and Louis Harvey (The Pink Panther series’ Herbert Lom as a sinister gangster) – unbeknownst to Mrs Wilberforce, as they pose for her as an amateur string quartet, going as far as to play musical recordings during their planning sessions – to plan and to execute a van robbery at the nearby railway station.

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Making his new landlady central to proceedings, Marcus uses her – unwittingly – to retrieve the money for them.  With much of the humour coming from her initial innocence, and her tendency to get into various scrapes due to her meddling, a good deal of the film looks at how the gang attempt to deal with the friendly old lady, once their crime becomes known to her.  First, they attempt to convince her she will be viewed as an accomplice, then that it is a victimless crime that will be covered by insurance.  Finally, they decide that they can only secure her silence by killing her.  It is fair to say, an outstanding comedy of error and incompetence follows.

The Ladykillers works by demonstrating a complete mastery of a number of comedic ideas.  We have physical farce, hare-brained scheming (the robbery works, it is more a case of how they botch their exit from the house, and deal so ineptly with the landlady), plans foiled through complete naivety and innocence, broad character stereotypes that are, in themselves funny – with the gang assembled far from a classy A-list of operatives.  Paced superbly, and – at a shade under 91 minutes – never outstaying its welcome, The Ladykillers is every bit as good as its superb reputation.

In this two disc release, bonus features are spread across both.  Disc one features a choice of 1.37:1 or 1.66:1 aspect ratio presentation for the film: a by-product of the era in which the film was made, where different aspects were worked on, or at least considered, concurrently.  Extras are a mixture of new and legacy.  We start with a new ‘Investigating the Ladykillers’ featurette.  Actually ‘”featurette” undersells this somewhat as – although not feature length – that word suggests a flimsy puff-piece.  In this case, it is a substantial, 40-minute work; one which has taken the time and budget to seek contributions from such modern comedians and commentators as Reece Shearsmith and Stuart Maconie, along with critics, writers and academics.

The emphasis here is on the impact of the film upon them and their careers, as well as an investigation of the film’s enduring appeal, along with more technical analysis of what is on screen – camera work, lighting, performing and writing choices.  It’s a good, rather than great feature, as it is featuring – primarily – people unconnected to the film in any way – and it is somewhat dry.  It is, however, well-shot, and it is always positive to see these releases taking the time, care and money to create new content featuring recognisable names – whether they are connected to the original work, or not.  It speaks to a project completed with genuine love.

The second new feature is “Colour in The Ladykillers”: an interview with Professor Keith Johnston.  This is an interesting enough 15-minute interview with Keith – an academic from the University of East Anglia – talking direct to camera about the use of colour in the film: it is worth watching, but also rather dry.  It is also not an interview in the traditional sense, as we don’t hear any questions.  After the obligatory photo galleries – lobby cards and behind the scenes – we get to the audio commentary with freelance reviewer and film historian Philip Kemp.

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Selecting the commentary track appears to take the viewer direct to the 1.37:1 aspect ratio; though the track will play over the wider version, if this is selected before choosing the commentary.  Philp’s track is well-prepared.  He neither overwhelms with too much discussion, nor does he leave vast amounts of dead air.  His track feels scripted – there is little here that feels improvised, as though he has thought long and hard about how to fit his stories to the visuals.  He speaks with huge enthusiasm, and provides innumerable tales, ranging from the genesis of the story, the pitching of the film, through to casting (we could have had Alastair Sim and Richard Attenborough) and production.

Kemp also makes an effort to analyse what is happening on screen – the decisions the filmmakers took – as well as expanding our understanding with interesting trivia.  Studiocanal has hired a real professional for this job,, and he has really done the work to provide a track that illuminates and informs.  Of all the features provided, this is the one for fans looking for something more in-depth.

     
     
     
     

On the second disc, we kick-off with ‘Forever Ealing’: a 50-minute Channel 4 documentary, from 2002, celebrating 100 years since the studio’s formation, and featuring long gone talents such as Sir John Mills, Sir Richard Attenborough and Douglas Slocombe (years after his Ealing duties to work extensively as cinematographer to Steven Spielberg, retiring after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); along with Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, John Landis, Colin Firth and others.

The first purpose-built ‘talkies’ studio and still the oldest movie studio in the world, this is a fascinating run through the history of the company, along with a look at the key players, its golden era, challenges and decline.  From the era of George Formby onwards, this is a great mixture of potted history and first-hand accounts and anecdotes.  It is also a reminder that Ealing has never been just about its comedies, despite, perhaps, these being the enduring legacy.

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Other features on this disc include an audio spoof trailer for the film created by Peter Sellers, a ten-minute featurette on locations with documentarian Alan Dein, and audio interviews with Assistant Director Tom Pevsner and Unit Production Manager David Peers.  These interviews are surprisingly substantial at 91 and 92 minutes respectively, and are both full of fascinating stories about the film, the men and the time in which this was made; at the push, David’s is the freer flowing, more fluent interview.

Finally – along with the standard issue trailer for the film – a clip from the BBC Omnibus show ‘Made in Ealing’, from 1986.  When glancing at the menu for this disc, it appeared that this would be a documentary padded out with short soundbite style interviews and featurettes.  What we end up with is well over four hours of fine material to complement the first disc, which, in itself, would have been enough for a perfectly serviceable release for this film.

Overall, this is a very well loaded release for a film of this age, and reverential to both one of the finest comedies and one of the best British films ever made.  This release walks the fine line between bringing in people less familiar with the film, or the trivia around it – perhaps those simply interested in learning more about the Ealing comedies, for example – and serving die-hard fans of the film: those looking for something deeper, in terms both of trivia and in celebration of a favourite film.  This release, housed, as it is, in fine artwork, demonstrates the effort and attention to detail Studiocanal have committed to it, and this makes it a must-buy for fans of classic British comedy.

The Ladykillers is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal.

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