Friday, October 07, 2005

THE LADYKILLERS (1955) - Alexander Mackendrick

This is the “original” Ladykillers, before it got Coen-ized a few years back. It does happen to star Peter Sellers as one in the group of titular ladykillers, but in a role so small and played so straight that you have to blink a few times before you realize it’s him. You blink because it’s just Sellers, straight up no chaser, not wearing any makeup or prosthetics or not working a heavy accent, other than a slight cockney twang. This was very early in his career and, like any good ensemble player, he’s modest without grandstanding -- an odd thing to see from someone who often plays three to four starring roles in one film.
Is this Ladykillers better or worse than the Coen’s remake? I have to take the same neutral stance I took with Linklater’s Bad News Bears. Six of one, one half dozen of the other. There are differences, yes, but the thrust and effect of the story is the same when you add it up.
Here, the story takes place in London, but the set-up is the same. A group of bumbling thieves led by snaggle-toothed and verbose mastermind Alec Guinness rent a room in an old spinster’s house supposedly for their band rehearsals. But, really, they’re using it to plot the perfect crime. With some minor complications, the heist goes well until a briefcase full of cash pops open before the old spinster’s eyes and the thieves realize what they have to do. They have to kill the old lady. And that’s when the real job begins…
Sounds familiar, yes? As it turns out, the Coens were pretty faithful to the original, a movie which they obviously loved. The biggest and best change they made was adding the Southern Baptist milieu to the equation which “colorized” the proceedings giving it a little more flair and vivaciousness than the original’s drearier London setting. They also upped the ante on the lead’s flowery speech and prodigious overbite, taking it to tipping point of absurdity in some of Hanks’ monologues and Colonel Sanders-esque attire.
The only major difference between the two versions comes in the heist plan itself. The original boasts a daring but simple armored-car robbery as opposed to the remake’s boat vault heist which was played more for laughs and less tension. What’s better about the original’s heist is that the old lady is unknowingly complicit in the robbery since she has to pick up the “lolly” from the train station, thinking it’s just one of her boarder’s old trunks. Later, when she discovers that “the band” had pulled the robbery and the trunk contains hundreds of thousands of dollars, they use this fact against her to stall her from going to the police. Of course, her conscience wins the best of her, and she decides to make them all go anyway, which is when the murder plots begin.
The Coens get much more creative at this point and find better, more humorous ways of dispatching their characters. But, then again, they have a very solid template from which to work, one that happens to work very well on its own terms and has its own unique charms.

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