7 May 1999 | Delly
Mrs. Wilberforce, a senile old biddy living with her parrot in a ramshackle Victorian townhouse, is just sitting down to take her lonesome afternoon tea when she hears the bell ring. Rare occasion. She opens the door to reveal a striking-looking gentleman with lank hair and an air of indefinable loucheness. "Hello," he says, smiling graciously and instantly defining his loucheness -- his atrocious teeth. "I understand you have rooms to let."
The prospective tenant is played by Alec Guinness, a long time before he attained the respectable old age that would make him such a convincing guru in Star Wars. Here he's in his lusty comedic prime, and from the moment he makes his unforgettable entrance, you know The Ladykillers is going to be a classic. Somehow, despite the silly cartoonishness of the story -- a meddlesome old lady foils the well-laid plans of a group of a bumbling bank robbers -- this is an ultra-sophisticated film. And despite the track record of director Alexander MacKendrick, despite the inspired performances he elicits from his cast, chief credit for its success must go to screenwriter William Rose. Most other comedies of the era, even those MacKendrick directed, suffer from forced repartee and obvious one-liners, making the viewer feel like an anchor is resting atop his head. Rose -- living up to his name -- has a lighter touch, reminiscent of the best comedies of recent years ( namely Rushmore. ) He invests each and every scene with a memorable hook, while at the same time forswearing even the least contrivance.
For an example, take the scene where Mrs. Wilberforce confiscates the crooks' cello case full of "lolly" and stashes it in a locked closet. In almost any other movie, this emergency would be used as set-up, a new problem to solve, an excuse to pad the running time. In The Ladykillers, however, the crooks simply wait a few seconds until the old bat is gone, at which point one of them, the beefy one, rolls his eyes, raises his right arm, and negligently -- it's such a dainty little lock -- staves the closet in. Now that may not sound like much written here, it may not even sound very amusing, but when every scene in the movie boasts a similar surprise, the cumulative effect is exhilarating. Whether or not you enjoy the individual gags.
For some reason, The Ladykillers is never screened, and written about even less. I can ALMOST understand the latter kind of neglect -- it's a hard movie to write about because, for all the talent and skill of its creators, it doesn't give you a lot to chew on. But while you're watching, it's an incomparable entertainment, one of those movies where every line of dialogue, every camera angle, every twist and turn in the story is felicitously, rapturously perfect. A true addiction.