One thing which is fascinating about Classic Cinema is how the themes and ideas represent the social context – but in many cases, it represents the current social climate too. The Ladykillers was remade by The Coen Brothers, starring Tom Hanks in the role originally played by Alec Guinness, and moved from Kings Cross in London to the Missisippi, USA. This original, far from merely using the word “f***” over 80-times (a useful piece of trivia about The Coens remake), according to Geoff Andrew is a “black comedy of English manners” which, at the time, served to “reinforce a society trapped in the past”. Personally, I believe it holds many themes that link with society today – and crucially the corrupted, mixed-up logic of those who are intelligent enough to pull-off a bank-job … but who cannot face the music when confronted by someone who is sincere enough not to join their gang, and who would rather the men take responsibility for their actions.
The crux of this film is Mrs Wilberforce (masterfully played by Katie Johnson) and she is what engages us fully in the story. Mrs Wilberforce is a staple to the society – she regularly assists and speaks to the police about the local issues. She knows the local shop-owners and they know her. She is very much a citizen who takes great pride in what defines and ensures a successful society by actively playing her role. You could argue that this trust in her nature is what is gets her into this mess – as she ultimately trusts the shadowy man who follows her home. Professer Marcus (Alex Guiness) is the shadowy-figure that asks to rent her accomodation. Well-mannered, well-educated and, in an arty-kinda-way, well-dressed. He is still a sleazy and creepy. And then there are his crew of thieves…
The characters created are creatively simple and clear-cut. We have the Army Major (Cecil Parker) – clearly one of the infliences of Stephen Fry’s character in Blackadder Goes Forth. The everyman Mr Robinson, which ironically, is played by Peter Sellers – an actor famous for his multiple-role playing antics on Dr Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying And Loved The Bomb. Next up is “One Round” (Danny Green), the big-dope – a towering, well-built man … who is also a tad slow. And the gang is finished off with the Italian Gangster, Mr Harvey (Herbert Lom) – a little bit too dangerous and only on this theft through the recommendation of Professeur Marcus. Mr Harvey is the ‘loose’ cannon and you never quite trust him – off the top of my head, a more comedic version of “Raoul” in Panic Room. Nobody is clearly from the same sect of society Mrs Wilburforce hails from – a high-ranking Major in the Army, a “Professeur”, a well-spoken “everyman”, a well-dressed Italian and … well, maybe “One-Round” is your average working-class gentleman.
The ‘Human’ Element
The final act of the film kills off one-character at a time as the bank-robbers try and (a) steal the money for themselves and (b) attempt to choose who will kill-off Mrs Wilburforce. As the group gets smaller and smaller, we eventually see Mr Harvey and Professeur Marcus discuss the night previously and the frustration the Professeur feels – he realises Mrs Wilburforce is “the human element” and that this is what has destroyed their plan.
The gang kill each other through their efforts to double-cross and con the other members of the group – is this hinting at the idea that all this greed over years – possibly centuries – will ultimately just destroy itself in one way or another. The criminals cannot kill the decent woman who they have decieved – the reason they can commit such a crime is because they don’t see those who are affected. Detached, they can rob a bank – and it hints that Mr Harvey kas killed people – but when they get to know who is directly affected and are held accountable for their actions, they cannot bring themselves to continue in this manner. In fact, they don’t even seem to like the ‘Old Lady’, or Mrs Lopside (implying that her attitude is off-balance?), and so it could even be highlighting the social divide between the white-collar criminals and the upper class against the “general public”.
Still don’t think it is relevant to todays world? It turns out that the play is enjoying a run on the West End in London as this is published … with star-of-In-The-Loop Peter Capaldi playing the Alec Guinness role…