Alec Guinness, later more well known for serious roles like Bridge on the River Kwai, the Star War series, and his teamings with super-director David Lean. But before he made those dramatic classics, Guinness was quite the comedic actor with great parts in The Ladykillers and 1951's The Lavender Hill Mob.
This 1951 British comedy is everything that's good in a light-hearted heist movie. It's a story of amateur crooks who take advantage of a situation presented in front of them. Where so many heist movies have twists and turns and betrayals left and right, 'Lavender' is content to tell a story featuring the ever-present idea of honor among thieves. At just 81 minutes, there's no worries about any downtime or even any scenes that slow the pace down. It's a funny story that gets funnier as these amateurs go to work on a seemingly perfectly executed plan. But if we've learned anything from other movies, there's no such thing as a perfect plan.
After 19 years of working the same post as a bank clerk supervising gold bullion shipments, Henry Holland (Guinness) decides he's had enough. There's no hope for promotion or advancement in his job so he decides to rob his employers of a gold shipment. How can he do it though? Exporting a large supply of gold bars is nearly impossible. But one day, a new tenant moves into Holland's apartment building and gives him an idea. Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) is an artist who owns a foundry so after some beating around the bush Holland asks if he would be interested in joining in on the caper. He agrees and a plan is developed where the stolen gold will be melting the gold into Eiffel Tower statues and shipped out to Paris without causing the least bit of suspicion.
With some help from two petty crooks (Sid James and Alfie Bass), they lay out a plan to take out the gold shipment without harming anyone involved. Little do they know, the actual robbery may be the easiest part of the plan. I'm not giving anything away when I say that most movies pre-1960s tend to believe (as studios forced them to) that crime doesn't pay. Take that for what it's worth when considering how this story will play out. The fun though is how the Lavender Hill mob (the gang is named after the street Holland lives on) get to that point. Holland's plan is ingenious from the start, but it's a comedy about a heist. It's obvious this is not going to go as smoothly as hoped.
For the most part, the humor that comes out of this situation is saved for the post-robbery half of the movie. Up until then, the laughs were chuckles here and there that put a smile on your face. The second half produces more of the laugh out loud variety. SPOILERS The plan works and the golden Eiffel Towers are sent to Paris but six of them are accidentally sold to English schoolgirls on vacation. Holland and Pendlebury must track them down so stumped Scotland Yard can't connect them in any way. Of course, even convincing six young girls to trade their souvenirs is easier said than done. This little twist is a great extended sequence that turns into a chaotic car chase leading up to the ending. Some physical humor blends well with some of the more subtle laughs to cap off a great story.
As a dramatic actor, I love Guinness, but seeing him in roles like this and The Ladykillers makes me wish he had done more comedy. It's hard to explain, but he does things with his face -- little mannerisms and quirks -- that are hilarious on their own. His Holland is a quiet, mild-mannered middle aged man who does his job and does it well, then comes home and reads mystery novels to an old woman living in the building. He's the butt of jokes where he works because of his cautiousness, but nothing really gets to him. He's a lovable crook because it's easy to root for him. I wanted him to get away with his plan. The same for Holloway's Pendlebury, an older man cut from the same cloth as Holland.
These amateur, bumbling crooks are exceptionally intelligent in every day life, but when problems arise in their plan, they just aren't as smooth. One great scene has them trying to get on-board a ship about to leave with detours continually slowing them down. It's a scene that is funny because of its awkwardness and tension working together, not to mention the looks on Guinness and Holloway's faces. The script won the Oscar that year, and Guinness was nominated for best actor (which he unfortunately did not win, losing to Gary Cooper and High Noon). This is a comedy that isn't trying to be anything else, just a very funny, entertaining story with two great characters. Also look for a quick appearance by Audrey Hepburn, making just her fourth movie appearance.
The Lavender Hill Mob <----trailer (1951): *** 1/2 /****