In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the truly brilliant British heist film directed by Charles Crichton, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) has been digitally restored, rendering its image just as sharp as its Oscar-winning screenplay.
The story centres upon Henry Holland (Alec Guiness) a timid bank agent with twenty years of low key service under his belt, whose job involves the regular transfer of millions of pounds worth or gold bullion. Not as shy as he would have his follow employees believe, Holland has long been hatching away at the perfect gold robbery, and finally gets a chance to put it into practice upon befriending Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), his new neighbor whom just so happens own his own souvenirs business, complete with smelting equipment; integral to the exportation of the gold.
The first thing to strike you about The Lavender Hill Mob as a viewer in 2011, is its quite, dignified and distinctly British charm, that sixty years later we appear to have lost. Holland and his accomplices treat each other with the greatest of manors and respect, there’s also practically no violence and no bad language at all. While these things would have been unthinkable under the production and taste codes during the 1950s, it’s hard to envisage a modern day remake not opting to feature all of these elements with bountiful excess.
No doubt a star as brooding, foul-mouthed and heavy-fisted as Guiness’s character is polite and light on his feet would have to be brought on board, a la Jason Statham in the Eastenders-esque The Bank Job (2008). This is not to say that contemporary British cinema is inferior, Sexy Beast (essentially a heist movie) features copious quantities violence and bad language, and is all the more outstanding because of it, just that its startling to see how much our approaches, expectations and desires as an audience have changed since 1951.
This to say that The Lavender Hill Mob is comparatively slow and without excitement, it isn’t. It features plenty of chase sequences and taught moments of suspense that are adequately exhilarating and were probably heart-stopping by the standards of the average cinema-goer upon its release. And so what if the special effects employed in a race down the Eiffel Tower have dated also most as badly as those used in The Birds (1963), like the great work of Hitchcock, it only adds to the value of it having survived to entertain so many years into the future – no doubt far beyond its initial life expectancy.
The greatest reward to be reaped from Crichton’s film is hands-down a chance to enjoy the acting talents of the exceptionally gifted and versatile Guiness. While he may not delight here with the playful whimsy of his multi-character performances in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) (another Ealing classic) or exhibit the comic timing of his role in the must-see The Ladykillers (1955), his adept quaintness and soothing tone of voice (a big plus twenty-six years when he gave us what are still the most quote lines from Star Wars) are the glue that holds the film together. The relationship between Holland and Pendlebury also scores well on the bromance barometer.
Ultimately, The Lavender Hill Mob remains an unblemished gem that proves that the period wasn’t just one of fertility on the other side of the atlantic.