Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Best-Laid Plans ...

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson): Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen.

Among my fondest memories of times with my parents are of movie experiences we shared. Sometimes one of us had seen the movie before and was sharing it with the others. Other times the movie was new to all three of us. Rarely did we watch a movie that we had all seen but separately from each other — unless it was a movie that we all enjoyed, even after repeated viewings.

On one occasion, my mother was reading the TV listings in the newspaper and she spotted a movie that made its debut on this day in 1955 — "The Ladykillers." She and my father had both seen it before, but I never had. They told me I should watch it, and I did — and I have recommended it to everyone ever since.

My parents were fans of the movies that came out of Britain's Ealing Studios — which is the studio that made "The Ladykillers." Through my parents, I have seen many of the Ealing Studios movies, and it is my opinion that "The Ladykillers" was the best.

If it wasn't the first time American audiences saw folks like Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, it was one of the first times. And it was in a delicious black comedy.

British actress Katie Johnson was the star of the show as a sweet and eccentric elderly widow. Johnson had been on the stage and screen for decades but was only getting the recognition she deserved in her mid–70s.

In "The Ladykillers," Johnson's character was prone to make outlandish reports to the police, who had grown accustomed to her ways and humored her whenever she came in. Guinness approached her about rooms she had for rent. He told her that he and a group of four others wanted to rent a room so they could practice as a string quintet. In reality they were a group of hard–core criminals who wanted to use the space to plan a robbery. Upon securing the room, they played a recording of Boccherini's "Minuet" as a cover — over and over.

Mrs. Wilberforce was forever interrupting their rehearsals to ask if they wanted some tea. During one of her interruptions, she asked one of the members of the gang where he had studied his instrument. He replied — truthfully — "I didn't really study it anywhere, lady. I just picked it up."

Mrs. Wilberforce was only too happy to have musicians in the house. She really knew nothing about them, only the tales she had been told — which, of course, were all lies, masterfully told by Guinness' character, the mastermind of the plan, which was to include Mrs. Wilberforce (but without her knowledge). The gang would pull off the robbery, then have it delivered via railway to a station where Mrs. Wilberforce would pick it up for the gang. No one would question a little old lady.

Mrs. Wilberforce was vital to Guinness' plan. And he kept up with its progress on the day Mrs. Wilberforce retrieved the stolen money; he spoke with an accomplice who was in a pay phone across the street from the station. Guinness and the rest of the gang were elsewhere, and Guinness was speaking from another pay phone. Their conversation was priceless.

Now, you must understand that Mrs. Wilberforce had a tendency to meddle, which caused some problems in getting the money back to her house. At one point, the money, in the trunk that was used to convey it from the scene of the crime to Mrs. Wilberforce, could be seen standing in the middle of the road.

"It's just sitting there," one of the members of the gang, who trailed Mrs. Wilberforce to be sure of her movements, observed with a sense of incredulity. "Look, couldn't we ... ?"

"No one, I hope, is going to suggest we steal it," Guinness' character replied dryly.

The trunk finally got back to Mrs. Wilberforce's home, and the gang was so close to getting away with it, but then a string of unrelated events, like a domino falling into other dominoes, allowed Mrs. Wilberforce to connect the dots, and she threatened to go to the police with what she knew.

This set off one of the funniest negotiations in movie history. Guinness and his accomplices told Mrs. Wilberforce that she would be treated as an accessory because she carried the loot from the station to her house.

Besides that, they argued, the crime was a victimless one. The insurance company would merely raise everyone's insurance rates by a fraction to make up for the loss. The police probably wouldn't even accept the money if she took it to them.

Mrs. Wilberforce was a law–abiding citizen, but she could see the logic in their argument.

And she told them she would sleep on it.

Unfortunately, during the night the gang members killed each other off, leaving Mrs. Wilberforce with the money. She tried to turn it in to the police, but they thought it was another of her fantastic tales — and they told her to just keep the money.

A nice touch at the end reminded viewers of a small detail from earlier in the movie. In one of her frequent trips to the police station, Mrs. Wilberforce absent–mindedly left her umbrella at the station. An officer chased after her to return it to her, and she was very grateful to him.

She did the same thing in the closing scene, but when one of the policemen chased after her to give her the umbrella, she said she didn't want it. She never liked it and, besides, now she could afford to buy a dozen new ones.