The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – “By Jove…it’s a good job we’re both honest men.”
I could’ve robbed my company blind in my last job. With intimate knowledge of their processes and systems, I could’ve created so much confusion that I would be safely esconsced in a bar somewhere in Buenos Aires, spunking my way through half the loot before they even realised something was wrong. The reason I didn’t? Because I’m an honest person. I believe in the basic goodness of humanity, and believe that most people on this planet are generally honest and decent, which is why I think the Heist Movie performs such a valuable function to society.
The great thing about a good heist film is that you get to feel part of a caper for a couple of hours. The best examples have a clearly defined prize, and make it clear who or what is being robbed. You get to be involved in the planning, make your own judgements on the cleverness of the plan, and enjoy the thrill of the robbery without any personal risk. Many heist films simultaneously withold vital information from the viewer – The Sting and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven are good examples – so that while the viewer feels part of the scheme, they are also deceived by a final rug-pull at the film’s conclusion.
The Lavender Hill Mob, one of the earliest and best-loved examples of the sub genre, doesn’t have that final twist, but it is one of the most joyous and exciting entries. Many critics cite Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers as the Ealing Studios finest efforts, but neither film is as effortlessly entertaining or has the generosity of spirit as this classic crime caper.
The film opens in a swish restaurant somewhere in South America. Our hero, Henry “Dutch” Holland (Sir Alec Guiness) is the toast of the town amongst his local and expat friends, casually dishing out cash gifts and donations – a few quid towards a political cause, another few to a ravishing young beauty (an early role for Audrey Hepburn). Holland is smug and relaxed as he relates his tale to another gent sitting at his table.
Cut to a grey post war London, and thousands of people making their way through the streets to work while there’s barely a car on the road – one of the incidental interests in The Lavender Hill Mob is seeing the capital so shortly after the war. There is evidence of the blitz everywhere in the background, and with the country still on rationing when the film was released, the subject matter must have been very appealing indeed.
Holland has worked for the Bank for twenty years, working his way into a position of trust as a clerk responsible for overseeing deliveries of gold bullion. His superiors view him as meek and unambitious – precisely how Holland wants to be seen, as he has a plan to steal a van load of bullion. All he needs is the means to shift it abroad and sell it on the black market.
In the meantime, he lives a quiet life in a boarding house on Lavender Hill, where he spends his evenings reading pulpy crime novels to his elderly landlady. The last piece of the plan falls into place with the arrival of a new lodger, Pendlebury (the incomparable Stanley Holloway).
Pendlebury is an aspiring artist and art lover, and reveals that he owns a foundry where he makes souvenirs for the domestic and foreign markets. Holland suggests a hypothetical plan where the bullion is melted down and re-cast as Eiffel Tower paperweights, and shipped to Pendlebury’s contact in Paris as innocent holiday gifts.
When Holland learns that he is being promoted, he has to act quickly, recruiting the last two members of the Mob, petty crooks Lackery Wood (Sid James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass). The gang in place, Holland makes his final bullion run…
Guiness was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Holland. Guiness was an actor of such inate dignity that it is easy to forget that Holland is really a bad guy – a manipulative, endlessly patient schemer with no qualms about leading the honest Pendlebury astray. His relationship with the effusive, eloquent artist is what gives the film its true heart, yet while we feel sorry for Pendlebury when he gets nabbed, it is satisfying to see Holland get his final comeuppance.
The Lavender Hill Mob celebrates the myth of the “victimless” crime – this mob are gentle schemers, and the only person who finds themself in any physical danger is Holland himself. They are robbing the bank, so no individuals are seen to suffer – in our era of global financial uncertainty while bank bosses still pay themselves massive bonuses, the idea of knocking over a bank without hurting anyone is still hugely appealing. Even without violence, the film is still remarkably exciting even after sixty years. Under the steady stewardship of journeyman director Charles Crichton, there are several outstanding set pieces.
Most memorable is a giddy chase scene down the Eiffel Tower – a bunch of the Mob’s paperweights accidentally fall into the hands of a group of schoolgirls, who descend in the lift, while Holland and Pendlebury take the dizzying route of a spiral staircase. The final chase through a police expo and the (strangely empty) streets of London is also breathless and witty.
The idea of the heist as victimless crime died a decade later with the infamous Great Train Robbery, when Ronnie Biggs and his cohorts clobbered the train driver during the raid. The driver never recovered his full health and the assault ended his career. Biggs remained in the popular imagination right up until his death last year, but no-one could claim that this gang were Robin Hood types.
The Lavender Hill Mob is a delightful relic from an earlier, more innocent era, but also stands up as one of the finest heist movies in film history.
Posted on 11/05/2014, in cinema, Comedy, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews, Thriller and tagged Alec Guiness The Lavender Hill Mob 1951, Charles Crichton The Lavender Hill Mob 1951, Stanley Holloway The Lavender Hill Mob 1951, The Lavender Hill Mob 1951 Ealing Comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob 1951 Review. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.