After falling in love with two other major works in the Alec Guinness canon of post-War comedies for Ealing Studios, I was not at all prepared for the wholesome, crowd-pleasing sentiments of The Lavender Hill Mob. Whereas The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts & Coronets are viciously acerbic—if not outright sadistic—in their densely written wit, The Lavender Hill Mob is light-on-its feet, effervescent. It’s not my favorite film of the trio, but it’s certainly the most streamlined, and maybe the one with the biggest laughs in its final payoff. While I was shocked to find it so bubbly & sweet, I was not surprised to learn that it was the most popular of Guinness’s works for Ealing, even earning an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
Guinness stars as an absurdly bland, milquetoast man who’s assigned to supervise the transport of freshly-minted gold bars from the refinery to the bank. Perceived to have no ambition or imagination by anyone around him (and maybe not even himself), Guinness deduces that he’s perfectly suited to steal the gold from under the bank’s nose, undetected. More of an adorable doofus than a criminal mastermind, the mild-mannered nothing of a man must navigate a world of crime beyond his limited comprehension. We watch him bumble through assembling a crew of thieves and then smuggling the stolen gold as novelty Eiffel Tower-shaped souvenirs, increasingly charmed with his buffoonish naivete at every step. Of course, his scheme eventually blows up in his face in a spectacularly farcical fashion; that’s to be expected. What caught me off-guard was how much he genuinely falls in love with both thievery itself and his small crew of fellow criminals. While The Ladykillers & Kind Hearts are deeply misanthropic works about greed & exploitation, The Lavender Hill Mob is a wholesome goof-em-around where the only true villains are the asshole cops who spoil the criminals’ fun.
I assume this was a highly influential work that just happened to slip past my radar until now. It’s difficult to imagine wryly funny heist comedies like A Fish Called Wanda or Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series existing in their current form without Lavender Hill paving the way. It’s a very simple, straight-to-the-point comedy in a lot of ways, but it manages to pack in many distinguishing details in under 80 minutes of runtime: a spiral staircase chase scene that rivals the visual trickery of Hitchock’s finest illusions; an all-timer of a gag that tricks a cop into oinking like a pig for the audience’s amusement; a single-scene walk-on role for a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn, billed simply as “Chiquita”, etc. The vicious misanthropy of Kind Hearts & Ladykillers speaks more directly to my own sensibilities, but I totally get this one’s broader appeal and I very much believe it to be worthy of their company.