The Ladykillers (1955)

the ladykillers poster

As part of the ongoing transition of the blog, I have decided to add a weekly feature: The Classic Movie Review of the Week. I’ve always reviewed classic movies, so I’ve decided to do a full-length review of one classic movie each Monday.

The Coen Brothers have a very unique sense of style. Their films are often visually arresting, filled with violence and a bizarre sense of humor that is both black and hyperkinetic. Nearly each of their films has tackled a different genre.

Their first film, Blood Simple, is filled with violence, double crossings, betrayals, and lots of shadows. You could call it an update of the traditional film noir. In fact, many of the Coen Brothers’ films are influenced by noir, both from the cinema and many of the detective novels that spawned them.

Miller’s Crossing, though primarily a gangster picture, takes much of its plot from two Dashiell Hammett novels: The Glass Key and Red Harvest. Likewise, the plot twists that go nowhere in The Big Lebowski are reminiscent of many of Raymond Chandler’s works, and IMDB notes that the film was inspired by Robert Altman’s version of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Though, being a Coen film, they move the time frame up and make it a stoner flick. It’s The Big Sleep meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The Coen’s have also created their own versions of such genres as the screwball comedy (Hudsucker Proxy with Jennifer Jason Lee doing her best His Girl Friday impression), the musical (O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?), cartoon shorts from Looney Tunes (Raising Arizona) and the true life crime drama (Fargo, though in true Coen Brother’s style they claimed it was based on real events, though they actually made it all up.)

In 2003 they hit on new territory with the romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty. Though filled with some classic Coen moments their take on this genre fell flat. Being the first film in which someone other than the brothers took partial screenplay credits (Sam Raimi takes co-writing credit on Hudsucker Proxy, but he is an old Coen collaborator.) The results of relinquishing some control of the story created what is easily the brother’s worst picture up to that point.

Their next picture likewise took over some unusual ground for the genre. They remade the 1955 British crime comedy, The Ladykillers. It stunk, and that badly.

Working with other writers = not very good.
Remaking somebody else’s film = crapola.

Here’s hoping their next picture is a complete original.

The Ladykillers was bad enough that it made me wonder what the Coens saw in the original that made them think updating it was a good idea. I checked out a copy from the excellent local library to see how it faired.

After watching it I can see how it appealed to the Coen Brothers. It is a bit absurd, quite funny, and rather violent, in a twisted kind of way.

This time Alec Guinness stars in the Tom Hanks role as a criminal mastermind who poses as a genteel professor renting a room in a feeble old ladies’ home. His gang of thieves (which includes a very young Peter Sellers in one of his earliest film roles) plot their crime while pretending to be a band rehearsing in the home. The house, it seems, is the perfect location for a hideout after they rob an armored car. The old lady will provide a perfect alibi.

The setup is really just a means to create some pretty humorous comedy involving the gang of criminals being befuddled by a harmless, clueless old lady. The comedy is rather British, which doesn’t always translate to an American state of mind. I found it to be rather smiling funny, rather than bowling over, spitting popcorn on my carpet funny.

The real fun for me was watching Alec Guinness act the role of a smarmy, conniving crook. He really chews on his role, creating such a vile villain, it becomes difficult to believe that the old lady (whose character is called Mrs. Wilberforce, and who I really must stop referring to as an old lady) would let him into her house, no matter how gentlemanly his manners make him seem. It is a part a long way from Obi-Wan Kenobi or Colonel Nicholson, and it is nice to see him play such a bad guy.

Katie Johnson (who plays Mrs. Wilberforce, who I really must stop referring to by her character name) does a lovely job playing an eccentric, out-of-touch, and really rather lovely lady. And it is a treat to see Peter Sellers before he was Inspector Clouseu or Dr. Strangelove.

In the end, I’m still unsure as to why the Coen Brothers chose this film to remake. Or why they chose to remake any picture at all, since their greatest skill lies within crafting interesting stories. The original was an enjoyable picture and covers similar territory as many of the Coen pictures. Yet there are so many other films that cover the same kind of ground, which could have been chosen. Perhaps it was just obscure enough that they figured that most audiences wouldn’t have anything to compare their remake too, unlike remaking say The Maltese Falcon or something. Although John Turturro could really do something with the Peter Lorre part.

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