THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (Charles Crichton, 1951)

In the late forties and fifties, Alec Guinness acted brilliantly in a series of superlative British comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1952) and The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Beautifully written by T. E. B. Clarke, Charles Crichton’s Lavender Hill Mob may be the most cherished of them.
     “Dutch” Holland is a Bank of England employee who supervises the transport of bullion to the bank’s vaults. His superiors haven’t promoted him because of his presumed lack of imagination and ambition; “honesty” is deemed his only virtue. But Holland’s trustworthiness and earnestness compose but a mask of middle-class respectability, maintained for years to provide cover for the robbery of £1,000,000 in gold he is planning. (The gold is to be smuggled out as Eiffel Tower paperweights.) Crichton’s film satirically punctures nothing less than the appearance of orderliness and ordinariness in England, that is to say, everything quintessentially English.
     Holland’s recruitment of gang members would be considered a parody of Seven Samurai, except that Crichton’s film preceded Akira Kurosawa’s by three years. The preparations for the crime, with Holland’s instructions, are hilarious. The theft itself is breathtaking. Whereas Billy Wilder’s American comedies contain masterful strokes of visual expressiveness, The Lavender Hill Mob is wholly conceived and executed in visual terms. Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), for instance, by comparison seems pushy and over-written.
     One bravura passage, though, especially dazzles. It involves Holland’s rush down the corkscrew staircase of the Eiffel Tower in an attempt to prevent a schoolgirl from foiling the heist. The subjective shots are as amazing as they are dizzying. Lovely: Holland’s hat flies off his head—a buoyant touch signifying his sinking fortunes.
     Pre-stardom, Audrey Hepburn has a poised bit.

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