IIt hardly makes sense to think of it as a reissue, as the 1955 crime classic from Ealing Studios is constantly revisited on screen, and in “Best Of” lists and there have been a number of adaptations, mostly an average but well-intentioned 2004 remake of the Coen Brothers starring Tom Hanks as the Brain Professor first played by Alec Guinness.

The original – under 4K restoration – is subversive, hilarious, and as English as Elgar. This is despite being written by expatriate American William Rose and directed by American-born Alexander Mackendrick. Both bring an American nod to the film, but with a deliciously English sensibility: a blend of cynicism and innocence without artifice. The comedy works because it’s as superbly constructed as a deadly serious noir thriller – there are eerily distinct echoes of Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Reed’s The Third Man. What Kind Hearts And Coronets did for the serial killer genre, The Ladykillers did for the heist movie (I always preferred it to the equally famous The Lavender Hill Mob.)

At 76, stage and screen veteran Katie Johnson broke stardom with this film, playing the seraphically sweet but formidably opinionated widow Mrs. Wilberforce who has a room to rent in her insanely unbalanced – detached house and secluded in the midst of dark London, smoky King’s Cross, like a cottage in a fairytale forest.

This room is occupied by the crooked “professor” Marcus (Guinness), who claims he needs it as a rehearsal space for his Boccherini string quartet, who are in fact a bunch of crooks planning to steal a train post office entering the nearby station. : grinning crook “Major” Courtney (Cecil Parker), ruthless killer Louis (Herbert Lom), sneering plush boy Harry (Peter Sellers) and drunken punch ex-boxer “One-Round” (Danny Green ). But when the dismayed old lady accidentally finds out what they’re up to, the gang realizes they need to shut her up – permanently. Oddly, to keep the musical going, the professor has to praise Louis’ brutal “timbre” in front of his new landlady, and of course that’s the film’s own timbre, his refined English tonal control and impending violence. , that makes it so good.

Killing Ms. Wilberforce is unthinkable to them as they are as submissive in her disapproving presence as any group of ashamed schoolchildren. She is the most powerful authority figure they have ever known. “One Round” instinctively calls her “Ma’am” which with Freudian simplicity later becomes “Maman”. And Mrs Wilberforce herself is a staunch supporter of English law and justice. I can never watch his performance without thinking of the English gentlemen John Betjeman spoke of in his poem Death of King George V, who “never cheated, never doubted”.

There is a beautiful moment of melancholy when (while still ignoring their nefarious intentions) Mrs Wilberforce says that Boccherini’s supposed men’s game reminds her of a quintet playing at his 21st birthday party in Pangbourne which was cut short when someone ‘one announced the death of Queen Victoria and everyone went home. Ms Wilberforce recounts this rather pathetic episode lost in thought, but without any self-pity or complaint: of course, the Queen’s death meant a party was inappropriate. But it also shows that her life has been a life of self-sacrifice, which makes the final moments all the more fun.

Thieves do argue, of course, and the way it’s written and constructed is as satisfying and plausible as any picture of serious crime. The Guinness professor keeps his oleaginous calm and borders on anger only once, when Louis chuckles that his plan looks like something someone has “dreamed of in a madman’s trap” – a brilliantly concise way of sketching the whole professor’s story, although it is a gag order of his time. Eventually, the professor will have to explain to Mrs. Wilberforce why there is no point in trying to report their crime to the authorities because the insurance company will have already covered it by putting a farthing on everyone’s policies so that no one was really hurt. (Since the Great Train Theft of 1963, however, movie audiences may have noticed that the Ladykiller gang also checked off the driver of the security van.)

It is a superbly elegant comedy; even after 65, it still kills.

The Ladykillers is in theaters from October 23 and a collector’s edition on Blu-Ray and DVD on November 9.


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