Released in 1955, the black comedy The Ladykillers was the last of the great Ealing comedies (although two more, very minor, comedies were released before the studio was wrapped up). It was also director Alexander Mackendrick's last film in Britain before leaving to plough even darker waters in Hollywood with his cynical masterpiece The Sweet Smell of Success (US, 1957).
The story - five criminals, posing as musicians, successfully carry out a robbery, then find themselves defeated by their apparently harmless landlady, and ultimately driven to destroy each other - came in a dream to writer William Rose (who also wrote Mackendrick's previous film, The Maggie (1954)), and Mackendrick was immediately taken by its dark humour.
Alec Guinness gives probably his finest comic performance as the increasingly unhinged criminal mastermind Professor Marcus. The role was originally intended for Alastair Sim, and Guinness plays the part with more than a hint of Sim about him. But the film really belonged to the 77-year-old Katie Johnson as the apparently dotty but utterly indefatigable Mrs Wilberforce.
The casting is perfect across the board: Herbert Lom, in his first comic role, brings genuine menace as hardman Louis (as Mackendrick noted, "he acted as though he didn't know he was funny"), while Cecil Parker as the Major and the huge ex-boxer Danny Green as ex-boxer One-Round seem so right it's hard to imagine others in the roles. Peter Sellers got his first major film part as Teddy Boy Harry (he also voiced Mrs Wilberforce's parrots). Sellers and Lom would later play against each other in several Pink Panther films.
Like Mackendrick's earlier The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Mandy (1952), the subtext of The Ladykillers was the stultifying conservatism of contemporary Britain. Mrs Wilberforce and her similarly aged friends represent the continuing weight of Victorian England holding back progress and innovation (that this innovation is represented here as robbery and murder gives some indication of the ambiguity of Mackendrick's vision).
The Ladykillers was a big success in Britain and in the US, where it was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar. Rose, however, left the production midway, following arguments with Mackendrick and producer Seth Holt, leaving them to complete the script from his notes. When he finally saw the film, three years later, he was forced to admit that the results improved on his own vision. BFI -Online