Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.
There’s a moment in 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob that captures an important truth about the best of the Ealing comedies: our two genial leads, having nearly successfully executed the gold heist of the century, suddenly realise their plans are in trouble. They need to swiftly descend the steps of the Eiffel Tower or evidence of their crime might fall into the wrong hands.
The two men start awkwardly racing down the spiral staircase. As their speed increases, and their need to reach the ground fast overcomes their vertigo they both start laughing. At this tense moment in a heist film, with all their schemes about to awry, two middle-aged men beginlaughing and hollering with giddy abandon.
Because there’s no point in any of this if it isn’t joy. Ealing Comedies can be many things – suspenseful, satirical, dark, cosy or heartwarming. But it doesn’t mean anything if they’re not going to be fun, and The Lavender Hill Mob is fun. I tend to watch it with exactly the same grin Henry Holland has when he sits back and realises that he’s become a crime boss. A quiet joy at what’s happening.
A lot of fun in the film is derived from celebrating a perfectly Ealing-esque type of cinema rebel. These aren’t the barnstorming revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the Establishment, nor the angry teenagers raging against the status quo simply because it’s there. These heroes are underdogs that can comfortably operate within the system, indeed they don’t even want to get to rid of it. But, maybe, they can see that it won’t hurt to give it a cheeky push now and then. To do us all a favour by taking it down a peg or two.
Alec Guinness’ Henry Holland is perhaps the perfect realisation of this Ealing rebel: a quiet, fastidious Bank of England employee who has secretly wished to rob his employers for decades. Guinness seems perfect for the role of such a suppressed rebel. There is probably a great deal of mileage in a pop psychology attempt to explain why he excels in the role – from his own suppressed homosexuality to the way he spent his life erasing his past as the poor, illegitimate son of a sex worker to become the most refined of respectable English actors. But, you know, there is always the scene early on in the film where he awkwardly but excitedly clutches a gun he’s just been given. He’s here to have fun.
His partner-in-crime Stanley Holloway’s Pendlebury is another of these most cosy of rebels. A frustrated artist with a small business, he seizes the opportunity to break the law as a jolly escape from his humdrum life. In a beautifully scripted and wonderfully acted scene the two men hatch their scheme, without ever actually admitting that is in actuality what they are doing. The world of suppressed suggestion and restrained excitement hidden beneath the most clear cut assertions of respectability.
36 years before he was to be Oscar-nominated for A Fish Called Wanda, Charles Crichton’s direction shows that he had the talent for comedy that is both broad and subtle even back then. Extensive location work around London shows off the city of the era, still bomb-scarred from the Second World War. But it’s T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke’s script that’s really at the heart of the fun here. Witty, with a genuine warmth for all the main character,s without ever letting things become too sentimental.
And its T.E.B. Clarke’s ending that I love the most about this film and which, like the giddy joy on the spiral staircase, really captures what is great about the best of Ealing comedies. When the end credits roll, this isn’t a heist film that ends with whether our heroes have got away with it or not. They’re underdogs, the House always wins and the system will limit what anyone can ultimately get away with. But, if you do decide to rebel in your own small way against the Establishment, make sure you have fun while you’re doing it. Because, ultimately, its not about the triumphs and impressive successes. It’s about having a spot of fun.