THE MEN WHO BROKE THE BANK – AND LOST THE CARGO!
As T.E.B. Clarke, called ”Tibby”, was preparing to write a heist movie for the Ealing studio, he went to the Bank of England to ask for advice. He filled out a form asking ”Nature of Business” and then explained that he needed help figuring out how to rob them. You might think this was the right time for the bank to call the police, but the bank officials were very helpful, coming up with suggestions. In the end, ”Tibby” used their ideas for The Lavender Hill Mob, a film that would become one of the most popular British movies ever made.
A trusted bank clerk
Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is one of the most trusted clerks working for a bank in London. In charge of gold bullion deliveries, he’s been doing the same job for 20 years, supervising the work and riding with the bullion vans, always making sure everything is perfect. However, Henry is preparing to change his life. He’s come up with a plan to steal the gold, but there’s a problem. Trying to sell it on the black market in Britain is too risky. But how should he smuggle it abroad?
A solution presents itself in the shape of a new lodger at Henry’s boarding house in Lavender Hill. Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) owns a foundry, making souvenirs that are sold abroad. Henry notices how easily the gold could be turned into Eiffel Tower paperweights instead of ingots. No one would suspect a thing. Pendlebury is in on the game, but they need collaborators…
One of the classic Ealing comedies
Fans of A Fish Called Wanda (1988) will recognize why John Cleese wanted Charles Crichton as director. The Lavender Hill Mob became one of the classic Ealing comedies, skilfully building its plot and chases. The heist is reasonably convincing. The likable criminals (Henry and Pendlebury are soon joined by two professionals who are anything but thugs, played by Sidney James and Alfie Bass) are successful at first, coming up with a plan that has Henry posing as a victim, which eventually turns him into a hero with the public. But once he and Pendlebury go to Paris their quest runs into a major mishap. The miniature gold Eiffel Towers are mixed up with worthless copies; a few of them (valuable enough to be worth going after) are bought by British schoolgirls. After coming back home, they become involved in a famous, cleverly directed chase through London.
The film was indeed shot in the city and you can still see plenty of scars from the war, bombed-out buildings waiting to be razed and replaced. Paris also plays an important part and there’s an amusing scene where the two leads are running down the Eiffel Tower staircase, shot in a striking way that makes it look like a predecessor to Vertigo (1958). Much of the film has a pleasant, old-fashioned touch to it, depicting criminals who are far from dangerous and a London carrying on in spite of the horrors of the war. The sequence where Henry and Pendlebury have set up a trap where they hope to attract a few more members to their mob is delightfully silly. Holloway and Guinness are terrific, especially the latter as the timid but ultimately bold bank clerk, a wonderful underdog character.
The film is bookended by a sequence taking place in Rio de Janeiro where Henry has escaped, eager to tell his story to a fellow Briton. As we return to them after the flashback that takes up almost the whole movie we learn the truth about Henry’s destiny and are left to ponder the consequences of the heist.
An excellent little film whose tone and ingredients would be improved upon in Ealing’s finest comedy a few years later, The Ladykillers.
The Lavender Hill Mob 1951-Britain. 82 min. B/W. Produced by Michael Balcon. Directed by Charles Crichton. Screenplay: T.E.B. Clarke. Cast: Alec Guinness (Henry ”Dutch” Holland), Stanley Holloway (Alfred Pendlebury), Sidney James (Lackery Wood), Alfie Bass, Marjorie Fielding, John Gregson… Audrey Hepburn.
Trivia: Hepburn’s first film.
Oscar: Best Story and Screenplay. BAFTA: Best British Film. Venice: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “I see Holland as a man given to handwashing gestures. Anyone who usually does that is on the plump side so I think I ought to be slightly padded… we should somehow point the incongruity of a person like Holland seeing himself as the boss of a gang. It might be a good way to get the right effect if he were to have difficulties in pronouncing his R’s.” (Guinness, “Alec Guinness: Master of Disguise”)