In The Lavender Hill Mob, a couple of ‘honest men’ and their gang make a comic attempt to get rich quick
The golden age of British comedy was during the late 1940s and early 1950s when a series of delightful films was produced at Ealing Studios under the supervision of Sir Michael Balcon. Among those well received by American audiences at the time were Kind Hearts and Coronets, Tight Little Island, and Geneviev. Uniquely British in atmosphere and tone, they highlighted eccentric characters in whimsical escapades with great wit and a touch of farce.
The best of the lot is the 1931 classic, The Lavender Hill Mob. Director Charles Crichton and screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke begin their off-beat tale of robbery in a lively Rio de Janeiro nightclub where a mousy British tourist, Henry Holland (Sir Alec Guinness), is spending big bucks. He narrates in flashback how he came to be such a rich man.
Back in London, Holland is a shy, Treasury department clerk who supervises the delivery of gold bullion to banks. “His one and only virtue is honesty,” his boss remarks. “No imagination.” Subsequent events will prove the boss wrong.
A bachelor, Holland is a boarder at the Balmoral Hotel in Lavender Hill, a genteel establishment whose clientele cling to the bottom edges of the middle class. Alfred Pendleberry (Stanley Holloway), who manufactures tourist souvenirs, has just moved in. When Holland discovers the newcomer has a foundry exactly like the government plant which molds gold into heavy bars, he concocts a scheme to rob the truck that carries the bullion and turn the gold into one of Pendleberry's products, a miniature Eiffel Tower paperweight that's usually made out of lead. Their booty can be safely sent to Paris as part of Pendleberry's usual shipment of tourist items. The stolen gold will be fenced, and they'll disappear with their new-found wealth.
Like Holland, Pendleberry believes the good things in life have unfairly passed him by so he gladly signs on. But as they both consider themselves “honest men,” they'll have to recruit some accomplices with robbery experience. As neither has ever known any crooks, they go to the race track and talk loudly about a large stash of money stored in Pendleberry's plant.
Two career criminals take the bait and try to loot the safe. Holland and Pendleberry, of course, nab them. The first thief, Shorty (Alfie Bass), is a bit of a bumbler, but the second, Mr. Lackery (Sidney James), seems to know all the tricks of the trade. Both are immediately hired.
Holland carefully rehearses his gang, and it doesn't look like they're up to it. On the day of the caper, Pendleberry gets picked up by the police for a crime he didn't commit. Holland's quick thinking saves the day, and the Lavender Hill mob walks off with 1 million pounds worth of gold, a huge sum for that time.
The comedy of errors continues. After the gold is melted down into hundreds of souvenir Eiffel Towers and shipped abroad, Pendleberry's French sales rep mistakenly sells a dozen of the valuable items to some visiting English schoolgirls. In a series of madcap chases, Holland and Pendleberry must track down the giggling young ladies to recover their booty. At the same time, Scotland Yard is working hard to identify the guilty parties in the heist.
Part of the movie's charm is watching Holland, whom everyone underestimates, outwit his bettors. Both men are quite conscious of having succumbed to “temptation,” and morality eventually asserts itself. But not before we get to laugh with a pair of underdogs as they enjoy their brief moment on top.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.
In two weeks: Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.