The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE LAVENDER HILL MOB | The Movie Waffler


The Lavender Hill Mob review
A mild-mannered bank clerk devises the perfect crime.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Charles Crichton

Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Alfie Bass, Marjorie Fielding, Edie Martin, Audrey Hepburn

The Lavender Hill Mob poster

Ealing Studios' most beloved caper returns in a new restoration as shiny as the golden Eiffel Tower miniatures at the centre of its criminal plot. That plot was devised, rather unbelievably, when screenwriter TEB Clarke, hot off the success of seminal police drama The Blue Lamp, approached the management of the Bank of England and asked how someone might pull off a robbery of their gold bullion. Rather than dismissing Clarke and calling the cops, the bank assembled a committee and figured out how such a feat might be accomplished, such was the draw of collaborating with Ealing.

Directed by Charles Crichton, the film features Alec Guinness in one of his classic chameleon roles as mild mannered bank clerk Henry Holland. Having served 19 years with little to show for his time, Holland dreams of stealing the gold he accompanies on weekly runs where he is accompanied by a pair of armed guards. He sees a chance at pulling off the perfect crime when he makes the acquaintance of Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a new tenant at his boarding house.

The Lavender Hill Mob review

Pendlebury runs a smelting operation that manufactures souvenirs sold at tourist spots around Europe. One of the products is a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, sold at a kiosk at the summit of the Parisian structure. Working together, Holland and Pendlebury comes up with an ingenious plot to melt down the stolen gold bullion and forge it into the form of the miniature Eiffel Towers. Requiring the assistance of someone with the sort of criminal expertise they lack, they lure in small time crooks Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass), and set their plan in motion.

The comedies of Ealing have endured in a way later British comedies like the Carry On series haven't, largely because they were never interested in generating cheap laughs, and the lack of smutty innuendo means they haven't dated in the same manner as comedies made as recently as the 2000s. The Lavender Hill Mob is a classic example of Ealing's preference for telling a compelling story with interesting characters over slapstick and sex gags. Watching Crichton's film, you don’t find yourself laughing out loud all that often, but it's only when the end credits roll that you realise you've had a grin stretched across your face for the past 80 minutes. It's a movie not so much of comic moments but of an overall comic scenario, and much of it is played relatively straight.

The Lavender Hill Mob review

The criminal subplot is so tightly rendered that the movie functions just as much as a suspense thriller as a comedy. Clarke's script details the minutiae of the heist in a way that was rare at the time; this was four years before Rififi after all. Remove its distinctively British eccentric characters and The Lavender Hill Mob might be mistaken for the existential French crime thrillers that would follow in subsequent decades. Crichton's direction and Clarke's clever script suck us into the finer points of Holland's plot, and part of what makes us want the protagonists to get away with their crime is how clearly ingenious they are, and how that ingenuity has gone unrecognised outside criminal circles. At his job, Holland is condescended to, but in his criminal enterprise he earns the respect of his partners in crime.

It's not hard to imagine the average British cinemagoer of 1951 identifying with Holland's malaise. This was a nation still enduring the after-effects of the war. With rationing still in place, the average British worker must have questioned the point of putting in their 40 hours. Guinness's Holland represents one of the first examples of what would become a staple of British comedy in the following years, the "little man" who strikes back against a class system that was gradually beginning to show cracks.

The Lavender Hill Mob review

Ealing is best known for comedy, but their films of this period were also packed with action set-pieces that were quite ahead of their time. The last half hour of The Lavender Hill Mob is essentially one extended chase sequence that begins in Paris and ends up on the streets of London. A dizzying chase down the steps of the Eiffel Tower is remarkably constructed, and though shot entirely in a studio, it's as vertiginous as watching Tom Cruise hanging off the Burj Khalifa. The sequence's influence can be seen in everything from A View to a Kill to the work of Wes Anderson. This set-piece is quickly followed by a devilishly ironic scene that sees Holland and Pendelbury attempt to retrieve one of their miniature towers from a police exhibition, a setup that must have had Hitchcock kicking himself for not coming up with the idea. It all ends with a car chase through the streets of London that riffs on silent era comedies while laying the tropes that would become popular in the wave of rednecks vs cops comedies of the '70s.

The movie is bookended by a flash forward to Holland living the high life in Rio, featuring an early appearance by Audrey Hepburn. It ends with a delightfully comic twist that could be read as something of a downbeat ending were it not for the glint in Guinness's eye. The gesture suggests Holland never cared so much about the financial gains of his exploits, but was rather more invested in getting one over the powers that be, an idea that endures with anyone who feels similarly under-appreciated today.

The Lavender Hill Mob
 is on UK 4K UHD/bluray and VOD from April 22nd.