Looking Back At THE LAVENDER HILL MOB - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s got a plan…
There are plenty of tip-top crime and heist movies in the world – but there’s none quite like The Lavender Hill Mob.

As one among the classic Ealing comedies, it has everything you could possibly wish for – Alec Guinness, a nice, batty old woman, a seedy guest house giving itself airs, and a comically unlikely criminal conspiracy, with added Stanley Holloway, Sid James and Alfie Bass.

We’re in good comical company here, then. Like its studio-mate, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob starts with a narrative introduction in an arresting location, with the action mostly shown by way of flashback all the way through to the end.

But where Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini was writing his true confession of murdering his way through the D’Ascoyne family from his execution cell in Kind Hearts, Alec Guinness’s Henry Holland strikes a very different note at the start of Lavender Hill.

The wealthy English gentleman abroad, he cashes a cheque for a huge sum, rewards a jockey who did well, donates to a local charity, rewards a very snuggly ‘niece’ (a young Audrey Hepburn, no less), and receives compliments on his parties. This, we gather, is a man of wealth and substance.

But the constant companion at his table wants to learn how he came to be in this enviable position, and Henry Holland is only too keen to tell him.

And so we enter the unlikely world of the Lavender Hill Mob.

Written by T E B Clarke, the story of the Mob is the story of a nonentity with a plan he has no idea how to carry out.

Henry Holland is a semi-professional nonentity. But it’s no accident.

He works hard at seeming like the least ambitious human being in history, because he has a job that regularly sees him in the presence of a vanload of Britain’s gold bullion, transferring it from the foundry to the vaults of a London bank. You don’t want personality in a role like that. You want dull, unambitious precision. You want a ‘stickler’ for efficiency, loyalty, and over-protectiveness. And so, with diligent but silent ambition, that’s what Henry Holland gives the world. For a relative pittance of a salary, he becomes the bank’s faithful man, never seeking advancement, never making a fuss, just regularly doing the job he’s given.

That means he has the reputation of a safe pair of hands. The last man in the world who would plan to swindle you out of a million poundsworth of gold bullion.

The flaw in Holland’s plan is that while, technically, he has a risky, pulse-racing, fiction-inspired plan to actually steal the bullion, he has absolutely no way to convert it into spendable currency – or to get it out of the country. He’s a poorly-paid bank official who can’t even afford a home of his own, and so has to live at the Balmoral boarding house in Lavender Hill. To carry out a heist, he needs at least a team of four, and he has no bigger plan than that.

These days, unkind critics might think Clarke’s way of moving the story along is little more than a scripting convenience. But when The Lavender Hill Mob was released in 1951, people were kinder so long as they were served rollicking good entertainment, and The Lavender Hill Mob provides that in spades. And the British Filmi Institute is clearly not an unkind group of critics, because it rates The Lavender Hill Mob as its 17th greatest British film. Ever. So how about we go with the convenient plot points because otherwise, we have to be miserable in a world where The Lavender Hill Mob is overly contrived – and nobody wants to live in that world.

The contrivance is this. Into Holland’s life – and indeed, into his boarding house – comes Mr Alfred Pendlebury, frustrated artist and maker of souvenirs for the “A Gift From…” market. A Gift From Brighton, A Gift From Clacton-on-Sea, A Gift From…Paris?

All mass-made out of lead in the London Gewgaws factory, and shipped out to wherever they’re supposed to be from. And in one particular case, made out of lead, spray-painted gold, and sent out. To Paris, where the gift of an Eiffel Tower paperweight is sure to degrade the soul and the dignity of tourists from all over the world just that little bit more.

A way of safely, legally shipping things that look like gold, but clearly aren’t, presents itself in the shape of Gewgaws’ Gift From Paris, and the foundations of the Lavender Hill Mob are laid. But Holland and Pendlebury figure they have time to perfect the plan, recruit professional help, and meticulously practice the million-pound heist.

They don’t.

When Holland is, against his wishes and highly inconveniently, promoted out of his duty of travelling with the bullion, it gives both his plans and the film a new urgency. They have only days to recruit two more conspirators, train them in their roles, and execute the plan.

While no Ealing comedy would ever particularly be thought of as ‘screwball’ – they’re altogether classier affairs than that – this is where The Lavender Hill Mob gets about as screwball as Ealing ever got.

The pair recruit two ne’er-do-wells (Sid James and Alfie Bass as Lackery Wood and Shorty Fisher) by putting it about that the safe at Gewgaws will be full of staff wages overnight, while awaiting repair. Sure enough, the thieves take their chances, and are quickly, efficiently roped into the gang.

The training is joyously absurd – Lackery needs to learn how to ride a bike, and Shorty to pose as a pavement picture artist. Did we mention Holland’s plan was based on pulp fiction crime novels, that he habitually reads to his landlady, Miss Evesham (Edie Martin)? The quirky elements of the plan are drawn from the kind of fiction where things like this just happen, because Holland can see no reason why they shouldn’t just happen in real life too.

And so, predictably, on the day of the heist, things go wrong in several directions at once. Pendlebury is collared by the police almost immediately – though perversely, not for any part in the bullion heist. Lackery and Shorty leg it with the gold, leaving Holland’s alibi only half-prepared. Wheels begin to fall off the plan pretty much immediately, but miraculously, while the police are suspicious, by the end of the day, they’ve managed to pull it off.

Pendlebury is released, Holland is a hero for bravely resisting the thieves, and Lackery and Shorty return with the loot, understanding that the pre-existing plan is the best way to get the bullion translated into cash.

From there, the plot narrows – Lackery’s not able to cross the Channel to take his payment in reconstituted gold, and Shorty would rather not go either, as a mate has filched some Test Match tickets.

That means the film’s third act is strictly down to Guinness and Holloway, as they ship the gold to Franch shaped like a lot of Eiffel Tower paperweights. When they go out to pick them up, the screw of the farce is turned up a whole two other notches. Against instructions, six of the Eiffel Towers have been sold to a bunch of English schoolgirls!

Cue a fantastic Eiffel Tower chase scene (with the caveat that it may well make you queasy as our loveable rogues race down the spiral staircase of the Tower), and the introduction of some typically black Ealing humour. While it’s technically only annoying to lose six Eiffel Towers-worth of ill-gotten gold when you have a fortune still left to spend, Holland makes the soul-crushing point that if any of the real gold Eiffel Towers are traced, or even noticed as being of a different weight to the standard lead models, they can create a trail that leads straight back to Holland (or “Dutch” as he’s taken to calling himself in both a pun on his name and a crime-friendly pulp fiction nod) and “Al” Pendlebury.

So the chase of two likeable villains after a bunch of British schoolgirls has a purpose rooted in reason, and backed up by a solidly intelligent performance by John Gregson as Inspector Farrow, who’s already catching on to the way the heist was pulled.

After the pair miss the chance to nobble the schoolgirls in Paris, they think up an ingenious scheme to get their Towers back by pure, simple bribery, giving a cash incentive and a lead replacement to all the girls who’ll swap.

The joy about this schoolgirl section of the film is that it forces the criminals to be inventive – and that it so very nearly works. All but one of the girls gives up her Eiffel Tower – but to Dutch and Al, one Tower’s worth of evidence is as damning as six.

There’s another of those potential credulity-stretching coincidences to take us into what is effectively the final reel of the film – the reason the one girl won’t give up her Tower leads the thieves right into the heart of their greatest danger, and in a moment of impossible choices, they grab it from right under the noses of the police.

Cue the car chase section! There are plenty of great car chases in movie history, and while The Lavender Hill Mob’s sequence is no Blues Brothers, it’s right up there in terms of believability and cunning, and after lots of switcheroos, false reports, police car thievery, a joyous on-screen police box sighting (the Doctor would be proud), and some moderately bizarre Welsh singing, it leads us round in a giant circle to the point where we came in.

Henry Holland, man of the people, generous charitable donor, life and soul of the British ex-pat community in Rio De Janeiro. And the filming is such that it’s only when we come back to him, having seen everything that led up to his life of luxury that we wonder about where everyone else has gone. What happened to the rest of the Lavender Hill Mob? How long can Holland maintain his lifestyle in the lap of South American luxury?

And, again to compare with Kind Hearts, the sharpest sting in the movie is right there in the tail, as we learn the answers to those questions, and get a flash of understanding about Holland’s future.

The Lavender Hill Mob is endlessly entertaining on repeat viewing. Guinness as Henry Holland is deliciously understated, and his portrayal of the nonentity persona he’s been cultivating for years is dead on. The rest of the Mob could not have been better chosen to give contrast, and each make a genuine input into the delight of the film. It’s much more high-energy than some other Ealing comedies, like Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport To Pimlico, and on points, it even takes out The Man In The White Suit (released in the same year!). It’s just stunningly enjoyable on practically level, and on any day to care to name.

If you want comedy that has a potential dark side, but which never strays too far or stays too long in the underbelly of human emotions – watch The Lavender Hill Mob. If you want Alec Guinness at one of his many Ealing peaks, bolstered by a cast of first-class comic actors – watch The Lavender Hill Mob. Bored and frustrated and had a dreadful day at work? Watch The Lavender Hill Mob.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a movie that will lift any day, give you giggles, and make you feel just a little better about humanity. It’s been doing that for people for over 70 years. And now it’s on Britbox, it shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

Watch The Lavender Hill Mob today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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