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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heart of Darkness (Comedy Division), 16 Sep 2010
This review is from: The Ladykillers [DVD] (DVD)
"Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Ladykillers," "Monsieur Verdoux," and "Unfaithfully Yours" form the dark crown of black comedy on film. Only the last is American. Grim hilarity seems to be a particularly British specialty.

Reading through a lengthy series (49 as I write this) of Amazon US reviews is often rewarding. In this case the great majority of those who write of this film lavish praise on the cast and plot. A substantial sub-class of reviewers felt it necessary to denounce the recent remake with Tom Hanks. (And quite right they were, too!) One reviewer praised the film and then gave a miserly single star in what must have been sheer error.

A single reviewer despised the film for its slow pace. In a brisk 91 minutes "The Ladykillers" offers the planning of a heist, its execution and the crumbling of all criminal expectations, along with the increasingly ironic deaths of five crooks. As Basil Fawlty might ask, what more does the reviewer want--herds of wildebeest rushing across the plains while Krakatoa explodes in the background?

A few reviewers noted that Alec Guinness was doing a masterly imitation of the great Alistair Sim. On that point, I have always wondered why Ealing didn't just cast Sim in the role in the first place. Sim starred in a deliciously black little comedy called "The Green Man" in which he played a master assassin foiled by a witless door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. "The Green Man" misses the exalted status of the films listed at the beginning of this piece by the narrowest of margins. Sim was also in "The School for Scoundrels," of course, but that small gem is just a little too cheery for true black comedy.

There are excellent summaries of the plot and insightful commentaries on the actors. I feel no need to repeat either here. I shall, then, take up three points that no-one has mentioned.

Billing in this film is odd. Guinness is clearly intended to be the star. The four other members of the gang are prominently listed. But 75 year-old Katie Johnson, who actually turned out to be the star of the picture and earned the British equivalent of an Oscar to prove it--not to mention the plain fact that she ate Guinness alive in every scene they shared--is listed as one of the supporting players in seventh or eighth spot.

The set design is stupendous. Mrs. Wilberforce's tiny, lopsided house on top of the railway bridge, idiosyncratic plumbing and all, is one of the greatest locations ever put on film. That house becomes as much a character in the movie as Mrs. W, herself, or any of the gang.

The musical score is quite perfect for the film--as good in its small way as the score of "Alexander Nevsky." It begins in unexpected formality with an Elgar-like symphonic introduction. Soon Mrs. Wilberforce appears and she comes with her own theme, almost a leitmotiv: "The Last Rose of Summer" played on a barrel organ. The heist has its theme, too, the Boccherini String Quintet (deedle-deedle-dee-dum-ti-dee-dee). Once heard, it is never to be forgotten. When all is well with the heist, so it is with the Quintet (deedle-deedle-dee-dum-ti-dee-dee). When difficulties arise, the Quintet suffers. At one point, a recording of the Boccherini is removed from a phonograph and intentionally smashed. As the movie swirls toward ultimate darkness, Boccherini disappears and the score generates a new theme: bodies plunging over the railroad bridge (harummm-THUD). Again, once heard, never forgotten. At the end of the film, a new and better day for Mrs. W is hailed by the reappearance of the barrel organ and "The Last Rose of Summer."

"The Ladykillers," admittedly makes demands on its viewers that are seldom to be found in contemporary pictures. It requires, for example, an attention span greater than that of a gnat. And it neglects to provide even a single flatulence joke for the relief of the more anxious members of the audience. Nevertheless it's a great film.

Five (deedle-deedle-dee-dum-ti-dee-dee) stars.
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Initial post: 27 Aug 2011 23:41:04 BDT
A splendid, and well observed review.
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