Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Lavender Hill Mob

The Lavender Hill Mob
Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway

A great deal of comedy deals with ordinary people getting whisked up in extraordinarily ridiculous situations.  I do believe that nearly all countries with film industries have, at one point or another, made a comedy like this.  That being said, however, I particularly enjoy watching the Brits deal with ludicrous situations.  After all, the basis for essentially every P.G. Wodehouse story EVER is some sort of outrageous situation that must be resolved by the end of the novel, and P.G. Wodehouse is my favorite author of all time.  The Lavender Hill Mob is cut from similar cloth.

Henry “Dutch” Holland (Guinness) opens the film by recounting his story in a restaurant in South America where he is clearly known as a big spender.  He tells his table-mate about how he came to be in such a position, telling a tale of his former life as a staid gold bullion transport overseer at a bank.  Don’t let his formal exterior fool you, though, because Holland is plotting a heist.  All he needs is an accomplice, and when he meets artist and die-caster Pendlebury (Holloway), he sees the means he needs to smuggle the gold out of the country.    The pair recruit two more thugs into their mob and start to put everything in place to execute their plan.  Naturally, complications arise, most comically when a group of schoolgirls inadvertently make off with some of the stolen gold.

The Lavender Hill Mob is most definitely a story from an older era.  With the evolution of technology and the slew of investigative crime shows that focus on the efficacy of forensics, one has to suspend a bit of disbelief when a crime as rudimentary as this one is presented.  I’m sure at the time it was considered rather sophisticated, but I can’t help but watching it with a feeling of “yeah right.”  Having said all of that, though, if you *can* suspend disbelief, The Lavender Hill Mob will take you for a very fun ride.

The major theme of the film is not so much the heist itself, but the idea of breaking free from one’s daily humdrum life and going adventuring.  As Holland becomes more and more embroiled in his thieving plans, and even as things go more and more astray, he seems happier and happier.  Even when dealing with the aforementioned schoolgirl debacle, Holland and Pendlebury have the biggest smiles on their faces.  A bad day thieving is still better than the best day in the bank, is what Holland seems to be thinking.  But it’s not simply Holland and Pendlebury who espouse this idea.  The boarding house where Holland and Pendlebury live and meet holds several ordinary humdrum people who likewise dream of more outrageous ideas.  The little old lady who knits while Holland reads to her likes to listen to outlandish spy novels.  A fellow boarder constantly jokes, jovially, about stealing gold.  I am never really concerned in this film about Holland getting away with his grand schemes, because that’s not the big point.  It doesn’t matter if he gets away with it; it matters that he tried.  He threw off the shackles of his regular life and lived big, if only for a time.  The film is joyful because of it; I feel happy watching our somewhat hapless criminals deal, even inexpertly, with their heist.

This is also a very British film; I chuckled so many times at watching our stiff upper lip protagonist flounder in his crazy antics.  Holland attempts to trap a safecracker whilst recruiting for the gang, but is so damnably polite about it, it’s ridiculously comical.  Our heroes might be trying to pull off a major bank heist, but this doesn’t mean they’ll forget their manners or the societal niceties.  Heaven forbid they jump a turnstile or bypass customs with their stolen gold; oh no, the rules must be obeyed!  Not as over the top as the superior Kind Heart and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob certainly does play with archetypal British mannerisms.  Pendlebury angrily yells at a fellow conniver about his art skills that “You must have some sense of proportion!”  Good stuff.  Gentlemen thieves indeed!

Before I had begun watching films from 1001 Movies, the only films I knew Alec Guinness from were, of course, the Star Wars trilogy.  He was Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that was it.  Then I hit the forties and fifties and the comedies he has in 1001 Movies.  Oh, how foolish I was; Guinness was such an amazing actor, and revelatory to me in his genius comedic roles.  While he certainly gets more word of mouth about his eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, I think he does an even better job here.  His Holland is a complex character.  He could have been a simple caricature, but Guinness is careful to show us his evolution.  Even as a sad sack bank employee, we are aware of Holland’s imagination, subdued though it might be.  In my opinion, Guinness is the main reason why The Lavender Hill Mob graces the ranks of 1001 Movies.  He is superb.

Plus he discovered Audrey Hepburn, so that's a definite win.

Hardly hefty or significant, The Lavender Hill Mob is an enjoyable little caper romp that has an unexpected sense of joie de vivre throughout.  It’s funny and clever (watch the police car incapable of making a three point turn and not laugh, I dare you).  Will it change your life?  No.  Is it old fashioned?  Yes.  But it’s diverting and charming and thoroughly likeable.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


  1. If you want to see the evolution of the polite British crime film, you don't need to leave director Charles Crichton's films. He did this one early in his career. His last film was A Fish Called Wanda.

    This one is cute and fun. It's not a world changer, but I really like these characters a lot.

    As for Alec Guinness, if you haven't seen The Bridge on the River Kwai yet, you haven't really seen what he was capable of. Holy monkeys, but that's a performance!

    1. There are definitely the roots of A Fish Called Wanda in this movie. And I *have* seen Bridge, but not since I was in high school, so you'll forgive me for "forgetting" about it - albeit momentarily. I'm excited to watch it again, though. I actually play the opening scene where the POWs march into the prison camp while whistling "Colonel Bogey" to my AP Chem students. Then I tell them they should all whistle/hum/sing it as they walk in together to the testing site on the day of the AP exam.