Following his success with “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” the 1949 comedy that made him a star, Alec Guinness took a risk by going straight to a couple of serious roles, one in “Last Holiday,” the other in “The Mudlark.” Both crashed at the box office, leaving Guinness with some thinking to do.
He soon realized the obvious–that the public might not be ready for him to drop his funny ways. In 1951, Guinness returned to the famous Ealing Studios, where he had made “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” and went to work on “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Man in the White Suit.” The result was another ticket-buying spree for both movies, and Guinness found himself at the top once again.
Guinness, who soon was to be applauded for dramatic portrayals in several films, is wonderful in “The Lavender Hill Mob,” which is available on DVD, streaming video and sometimes on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It all comes down to his relaxed, almost delicate comedic style–a mastery of the small detail and satisfaction with the chuckle instead of the big laugh.
He plays Henry Holland, a queasy bank clerk with huge plans. Holland has been orchestrating a complicated bank robbery for months and, with the help of his friend Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), swipes a shipment of gold and melts it down into paperweight replicas of the Eiffel Tower.
T.E.B. Clarke’s screenplay (based on his own story of the same name) has its share of humorous plot twists, all given a freewheeling touch by director Charles Crichton. Holland and Pendlebury soon lose the loot and have to go to Paris to recover it.
Much of the dry humor then turns a little frantic, but in a good way, as Holland and Pendlebury’s desperation leads to, among other things, a broad parody of a police car chase. The episode is a classic, ending with a huge pileup and every cop radio loudly broadcasting “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” because of crossed communications.
It’s hard to imagine “The Lavender Hill Mob” being made anywhere but at the Ealing Studios. The London company, known for its very British dramas and, especially, for its highbrow, black comedies, just had a way with this sort of thing. As with “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” the film is layered with satiric pricks at a British society mired in class distinctions and biases.
“The Lavender Hill Mob” resulted in Guinness’ first Academy Award nomination for best actor. It also marked the first time a very young Audrey Hepburn was really noticed, particularly by Hollywood. She only has one line of dialogue–watch closely–but it was enough to start her career on the fast track.
Director’s cue: Movie lovers, you may also want to take a look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca. For more film articles, please visit Nick Smithville.