Friday, May 4, 2018

The Lavender Hill Mob

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951) Light-hearted Ealing Studios "caper" film starring Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as two renters in a Lavender Hill brownstone, one a bored bank auditor, the other a sculptor with dreams of greater things. The two men have enough in common that a shared light-bulb goes off: why not pool their common knowledge and carry-out the perfect crime?

Why not, indeed? The time was right for it. Crichton, whose directing career would go on and on, diverting to television and cap with the absurdist
A Fish Called Wanda--these films share many similarities, actually--had a knack for nailing down frothy comedies with the slightest acid-wit without seemingly like a spoil-sport. Crichton is a director whose influence is less on the comedy, which is serviceable until he wants to make a real point—more on that in a tick—but on the dry way he presents comedy, and that donnish attitude to absurdity is equally evident from the nearly forty years that spanned The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda. Everything is perfectly cordial, until at some point the clock strikes four and suddenly it turns into a mad tea party, cracking the British reserve.

In The Lavender Hill Mob, that moment comes when the two ring-leaders escape with their ill-gotten gains to Paris, and in a moment of aptness take a turn around the top of the Eiffel Tower—all 360 degrees of it—in one shot (I suspect it's a process shot done in the studio as there are no other tourists up there at the time, but I could be wrong). And then, in a moment of high urgency, scamper down the Eiffel's circular stairwell in a chase to beat the tower's elevator to the ground. The result is a dizzying sequence of hand-held shots watching the men go from desperation to scampering, hooting little boys, finally reaching the ground, their world spinning. It's a freeing moment, filmically and emotionally, the circular patterns cork-screwing an indelible moment into the film's structure.
It's a fine entertainment, and although Guiness and Crichton would never work together again, The Lavender Hill Mob shows the promise of two wily co-conspirators collaborating—right up to the seamless reveal of the film's final gambit.
And speaking of promising futures, look for future film icon's: Robert Shaw can be seen in the background of the police exhibition, Desmond Llewelyn ("Q" of the Bond films) is in the Customs scene, and at the beginning of the film the very small part of "Chiquita" is played by a young ingenue by the name of Audrey Hepburn.
Audrey Hepburn's first screen appearance reaching the U.S.: The Lavender Hill Mob

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