Monday, July 9, 2012

Charles Crichton | The Lavender Hill Mob

golden towers
by Douglas Messserli

T.E.B.Clarke (screenplay), Charles Crichton (director) The Lavender Hill Mob / 1951

One of the best of the British Ealing Studios comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob might seem not to fit in my “Crime Pays” series, particularly since it ends with the hero’s arrest. Yet for the lifelong government employee, Holland (the incomparable Alec Guiness), the year he has just had in Rio de Janeiro where he has lived in a style to which he was previously “unaccustomed” has been a true pleasure, filled with women (including the young Chiquita (Audrey Hepburn),horse-racing and good food radically different from his previous life as a subservient underling.

     For over 20 years, Holland has overseen the monthly shipments of British gold ingots as they make their way from the foundry to the bank. Meticulously honest (returning even a small scrap of the metal that lands upon his shoe to the melting pot) and overly cautious during the transit of the gold (he calls for a stop every time he sees a car which might be following the truck), Holland might said to define the word nebbish. Secretly, however, he has great aspirations—to steal an entire shipment of the gold bars—but cannot imagine a way to get the bars out of the country in order to sell them in the underground.

     That is, until he meets a new neighbor in his Lavender Hill rooming house. Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) is a would-be artist who works at a day job of designing and crafting tourist trinkets made of lead and copper. On a visit to Pendlebury’s small plant, Holland immediately perceives that the creation of these metal trophies is not so very different from the creation of the gold ingots he oversees. Before long he has confided to his new neighbor his long-planned scheme, who now together plan to steal the truck, melt down the gold bars, and recast them into small models of the Eiffel Tower, which Pendlebury sells at the Tower itself in Paris. In search of further conspirators, the two loudly speak in public of the need of a new lock for Pendlebury’s safe, and wait out the night for a would-be robber. Two, Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) show up and are quickly drawn into the plot.

     The delight of this comedy, however, does not lie so much, as it does in Melville’s films, upon the details of the heist it does on its hilarious character-types, such as Lackery, Shorty, Pendlebury and the two elderly landlords of The Lavender Hill rooming house, Mrs. Chalk (Marjorie Fielding) and Miss Eversham (Edie Martin).

     The heist itself goes off almost flawlessly, except for the arrestment of Pendlebury, who has “accidentally” walked away with a painting in hand. The truck is easily hijacked by Lackery and Shorty, Holland tied up, blind-folded, and dizzily falling into the river as an alibi. Indeed, he is hailed as a hero instead of a suspect. The ingots are melted down and the “golden towers,” symbol of the wealth the two partners imagine, are cast and sent on to France, with specific instructions that the boxes should not be opened and sold.

     The pair and their conspirators, who have now dubbed themselves The Lavender Hill Mob, celebrate, as Holland and Pendlebury head off to Paris to retrieve their stolen loot. It has a nearly flawless heist—except that a clerk has opened one of the boxes and sold six of the golden Eiffel Towers to a flock of English school girls visiting the Tower itself. In horror, the two middle-aged villains rush after them, racing down the nearly endless circle of stairs in a marvelous dizzying fall that literally puts them (and the camera) into a spin. But it is too late.

      On they rush to the ship which will take back their towers into harm’s way. Forced to buy tickets, clear customs, and suffer a bag check, the two miss the boat. Back in England, however, they visit the school, offering to replace the Eiffel Towers (lead for gold) and award each of the young purchasers a monetary bonus. All agree to the exchange—except one, who stubbornly prefers the one she has. She intends it, we soon discover, as a present to a policeman friend who has already begun to suspect that the robbery might have something to do with Pendlebury and his business. Determined to test the substance of his newly received gift, the policeman might have foiled the entire plot were Holland and Pendlebury were not on hand to engage in a “cops and robbers” chase within the police academy itself that ends with them stealing back the trinket and Pendlebury’s arrest.

      Yet Holland escapes with his six “golden towers,” just enough to give him his wonderful year in the utopian world that Brazil here represents. Despite his capture, accordingly, he has—perhaps for the first time in his life—thoroughly enjoyed the experience, becoming of figure of great admiration and largesse. Although prison may be in store for Holland, it can be no worse than the prison of his own making in which lived for the twenty years before he made his miraculous break into the “gay, sprightly, land of mirth and social ease.” Crime has paid, if only temporarily.

Los Angeles, July 8, 2012

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