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The Lavender Hill Mob

Director – Charles Crichton – 1951 – UK – Cert. U – 78m


A Bank of England employee stumbles upon the perfect means to rob his employer of the gold bullion he transports there on a daily basis– classic Ealing comedy is back out in a new 4k restoration in UK cinemas on Friday, March 29th

Holland (Alec Guinness) has a lowly job at the Bank of England supervising the transfer of recently minted bars of gold bullion to the bank’s secure vault by security van., He rides in the back and is forever asking the harried driver to check round the corner for suspected cars lying in wait to ambush the van. He is considered an honest nobody, an appearance he has cultivated for the best part of two decades. He has a mind to rob the van, if only he could work out how to smuggle the bullion out of the country.

Fate intervenes in the form of a newly arrived tenant at the downmarket Balmoral Guest House in Lavender Hill, where he lodges. Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) runs a business selling tourist tat, including lead models of the Eiffel Tour for selling at that Parisian monument. He melts the lead down on his London premises to cast it into the models.

He invites Holland for a tour of his modest factory. Holland sees the process and suddenly has the missing piece of his plan. He ropes in Pendlebury plus a couple of professional criminals – safe cracker Lackery (Sidney James) and burglar Shorty (Alfie Bass) – to form the Lavender Hill Mob so as to carry out Holland’s daring enterprise.

The robbery nearly goes wrong firstly when Holland is promoted, so must execute the heist before being moved to another department in the bank at the end of the week. On the designated Friday, while waiting for the van, Pendlebury absent-mindedly picks up a painting from a stall and is mistaken for a thief; later, Holland, bound and gagged, is abandoned by fellow gang members fleeing approaching policemen before rolling him in the dust to give him his intended alibi. Falling into the Thames, he is rescued by men from the Met, becoming the plucky little hero of the robbery feted in national newspaper stories.

A further pitfall awaits Holland and Pendlebury in Paris, where the box marked ‘R’ containing gold Eiffel Towers is opened by the French saleswoman who, because of the difference between French and English pronunciation, believed she was not to open the box marked ‘A’ and has therefore sold six gold Eiffels to six English schoolgirls. As the duo attempt to catch up with the girls to get these Towers back or risk the evidence being traced by the British police, the overly zealous bureaucracy of the French transport system prevents them from doing so.

Back in London, one of the six schoolgirls refuses to exchange her ‘experimental model’ souvenir for the ‘regular’ type, as she bought it as a present for her friend, the local copper on the beat. The stage is now set for our two fugitives’ snatch and grab of the last gold tower and their flight from pursuing police vehicles.

Arguably the quintessential Ealing comedy, this is set in a friendly, post-war England where tenants read gangster novels to prim landladies, schoolgirls talk to kind policemen on the beat, and men driving sports cars sing along to the radio playing the nursery rhyme Old Macdonald Had a Farm.

The land portrayed may be a middle-class fantasy 1950s England, where everyone lives happily with everyone else in their ordered social position, but within those limitations, bank employee Holland is a rebel determined to break out of the system that refuses his chances of self-advancement until it U-turns at the very moment when that will ruin his plans for doing so. This is a watertight comic device, and the humour has lasted well.

The team of screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke and director Charles Crichton were between them additionally responsible for other Ealing comedies Hue and Cry (1947) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Clarke’s writing has about it a wonderful sense of whimsy as he constructs the perfect scenarios for Guinness to explore his downtrodden bank clerk character who is considerably smarter than everyone gives him credit.

Holloway as Pendlebury provides Guinness with the perfect comic foil. Sid James and Alfie Bass are inspired choices to complete the gang. Marjorie Fielding as landlady Mrs. Chalk perfectly balances English faux respectability with a salacious appetite for the minutiae of the American gangster novels read to her by Holland. Also noteworthy, right at the bottom of the cast list, is Audrey Hepburn, who can be spotted delivering a couple of lines in the opening Rio de Janeiro scene.

A marvellous descent of Holland and Pendlebury down the central, spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower allows Crichton to concoct a near-kaleidoscopic sequence of revolving, back projected images as the pair become unexpectedly giddy. The breathlessness is matched by the unnerving earlier eyes-covered Holland blundering around, arms tied, in a riverside warehouse.

It’s hard not to like the laugh out loud funny sequences even more – Pendlebury almost confessing the crime in a police station due to a misunderstanding, incompetent police drivers later proceeding toward the same destination before colliding with one another and a uniformed policeman on the side of the crooks’ stolen car cheerfully belting out Old Macdonald, blissfully unaware that he’s supposed to be apprehending the very men giving him a lift.

The film has never looked better than it does in this new 4K restoration, making this the perfect time to go out and see it in a cinema. To this day, it remains charming, delightful and – in paces – very, very funny.

The Lavender Hill Mob is back out in cinemas in the UK in a new 4k restoration on Friday, March 29th.


As if that weren’t enough, UK cinemas will be showing a selection of restorations of Ealing films, also from Friday, March 29th, under the banner Once More With Ealing:

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