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Film / The Ladykillers (1955)

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The Ladykillers is a 1955 British Black Comedy film from Ealing Studios, about a gang of London criminals who, pretending to be classical musicians, rent a room from Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) in her lopsided house that sits above a railway tunnel.

The gang — consisting of "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness), "Major" Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker), Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom), Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers), and "One-Round" Lawson (Danny Green) — plan to commit a payroll robbery and use the house as a base, which proves harder than they think with Mrs. Wilberforce around.

A stage version premiered in England in 2012 based on the original, edited by Graham Linehan of Black Books and Father Ted. It received extremely positive reviews and featured an All-Star Cast, with Peter Capaldi as Marcus and Ben Miller as Louis.

Remade by The Coen Brothers in 2004.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Truth: Professor Marcus claims that if Mrs. Wilberforce went to the police they wouldn't want the money back. They don't, but not for the reasons he claimed.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Professor Marcus, arguably.
    • Major Courtney is one of the politer thieves. When he draws the short straw to kill Mr. Wilberforce, he instead decides to Screw This, I'm Outta Here (albeit while taking the money with him).
    • One-Round is fairly gruff, but not really malicious, and he has a clear set of principles.
  • All for Nothing: After the decision to murder Mrs. Wilberforce results in the gang all murdering each other, she gets to the police station at last... and they don't believe a word of her story anyway, as they've had their time wasted by her before.
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end of the film, the old lady is the last person standing.
  • A Rare Sentence: "Give the parrot his medicine!"
  • Armed Blag: The gang hold up an armored van transporting a large quantity of cash.
  • Ax-Crazy
  • Berserk Button:
    • Professor Marcus tends to flip when called 'crazy'. This is usually accompanied by an over-the-top crescendo of epic proportions from the score, and tell-tale looks of expectant horror on the faces of the gang. Luckily, something usually happens to interrupt Marcus.
    • Don't call One-Round stupid.
      • Or accidentally convince him that you've killed Mrs Wilberforce for that matter.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: While nice is somewhat debatable, Professor Marcus is at least Affably Evil, and remains laid-back and charming throughout most of the film. Then Louis calls him 'crazy'.
  • Bizarrchitecture: A mild sort— the house's foundation has subsided due to bombing during the London Blitz. Pictures never hang right, and it seems to have screwed up the grandfather clock too.
  • Book Ends: The film both begins and ends with Mrs Wilberforce visiting a police station and the police not believing a word of what she's saying.
  • British Teeth: Professor Marcus', which are thankfully not Guinness' natural chompers.
  • The Cameo: Frankie Howerd is a barrow boy whose day is inadvertently ruined by Mrs. Wilberforce.
  • Cassandra Truth: When Mrs. Wilberforce tries to return the money, the police just don't believe her and tell her to keep it. It's heavily implied that they have been led astray before by listening to her.
  • Classical Music: The gang pose as a string quintet.
  • Clock King: Professor Marcus has it timed down to the moment how long it will take to do the heist and how long it will take for Mrs. Wilberforce to retrieve the trunk, however, he couldn't plan for Mrs. Wilberforce herself.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mrs Wilberforce
  • Deadpan Snarker: Professor Marcus
    • Harry and Louis have their moments as well.
  • Delinquent: Harry's a slangy Teddy Boy.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The German posters for the film, which were done by the artist Heinz Edelmann, who also worked on Yellow Submarine.
    • To a lesser extent, some of the British posters.
  • Drawing Straws: The gang do this to determine which of them will do away with Mrs. Wilberforce using matchsticks.
  • Driver of a Black Cab: Mrs. Wilberforce accidentally drives one out of business.
  • Dumb Muscle: One-Round Lawson.
  • Dwindling Party: The group becomes this while trying to rid of Mrs. Wilberforce, as they keeping killing each other or dying by fluke accidents.
  • The Edwardian Era: The good old days for Mrs. Wilberforce.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Although they agree that they have to kill Mrs. Wilberforce, none of them are all that eager to do it themselves. One-Round eventually decides that he doesn't want anyone to do it and kills Harry when it looks like he has.
  • Exact Words: When Mrs. Wilberforce asks One-Round where he learned to play the cello (which he had only been pretending to play), he truthfully replies that he "just sorta... picked it up".
  • The '50s: But in that extremely unglamorous British way.
  • For Want of a Nail: Occurs frequently, particularly in the second half of the film.
    • Had Louis not called Professor Marcus crazy whilst they were disposing of One-Round's body, they would both likely still be alive and have either killed Mrs Wilberforce or just ran off with the money.
    • If One-Round had bothered to check that Mrs Wilberforce was just asleep as opposed to having been killed, Harry would still be alive and have escaped with the money.
      • For that matter, if Professor Marcus or, especially, Louis had drawn the short match the first time, they would've killed Mrs. Wilberforce without hesitation; there wouldn't have been a chance for Courtney to try and make a run for it, or for One-Round to have a change of heart, and potentially all five could've managed to get away with equal shares.
    • If it weren't for a few banknotes escaping from the cello case and drifting down to Professor Marcus below whilst he was climbing the roof, Major Courtney would have survived and likely escaped with all the money.
    • If One-Round's cello case hadn't got stuck in the door, the gang would have all survived and escaped with the money.
    • Adding to that is if Mrs Munsen hadn't arrived with the newspaper when she did, the gang would likely have been able to convince Mrs Wilberforce that the money wasn't stolen and escaped.
    • The entire film fits this trope really, as if Professor Marcus had chosen somewhere else to stay, the gang's plan would have gone off a lot smoother.
  • Gentle Giant: "One-Round" Lawson.
  • Gentleman Thief: Major Courtney
    • To a lesser extent, Professor Marcus as well.
  • Giggling Villain: After Major Courtney's fall from the roof:
    Professor: Is he hurt? (giggles)
    Louis: (deadpan) I shouldn't think he felt a thing.
  • Ironic Echo: A form of this occurs when Major Courtney goes up onto the roof chasing after General Gordon the parrot to give him his medicine, and promptly gets kicked in the face and then knocked off the roof, mirroring when he later falls to his death from the roof after trying to escape with the money when the chimney pot he was holding onto collapses.
  • Jerkass: Louis is irritable, mocking and a Perpetual Frowner even before the robbers find themselves forced to kill someone.
  • Leitmotif: Boccherini's Minuet, which the gang pretend to play.
  • The Load: Mrs Wilberforce becomes this to the gang.
  • London Gangster: Not the most extreme example, but definitely one of the most eccentric.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: The Professor pulls this trick on Louis while trying to sneak up on him on the waste ground between the house and the railroad tracks.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Being an incredibly annoying and persnickety landlady? Kill the old woman! Obviously there is also the practical reason of the chances of her becoming a witness, but by the point they propose it she has annoyed every single member of the gang.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Even grocers and cabbies aren't safe from the unintentional wrath of Mrs. Wilberforce.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The title. While the five do try to kill Mrs. Wilberforce, they fail and end up dying at each others hands. They also don't fit into the romantic definition.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Mrs. Wilberforce, for The Edwardian Era.
  • Not With the Safety On, You Won't: One-Round holds the Professor and Louis at gunpoint, but the gun fails to fire. After stabbing him, Louis notes that the safety was on.
  • Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: Professor Marcus declares this, and probably seals their fate doing so.
  • Obviously Evil: While some of the other members of the gang, such as the brutish One-Round and the dour, hostile Louis, might raise some red flags, Professor Marcus is on another level entirely — his first scene features him hinted in silhouette before a soft key light shines on his face, and everything from his demeanour to his smile oozes derangement and menace. Most people would cross the street to avoid him; Mrs. Wilberforce, batty old lady that he is, invites him in and rents him a room.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Mrs Wilberforce seems to unwittingly bring chaos and disorder to everything and everyone around her.
  • Pet the Dog: One-Round and Mrs. Wilberforce.
  • Plethora of Mistakes: The heist itself works perfectly; what happens afterward, on the other hand...
  • Pirate Parrot: The late Captain Wilberforce wasn't in the least piratical, but he was a nautical man and this is reflected in the vocabulary of his parrots. "Squawk! Swab the deck!"
  • Recorded Audio Alibi: The gangsters pretend to be musicians rehearsing, playing the music on a record player while plotting the heist.
  • Ruthless Foreign Gangster: Louis is continental, and is the first one to suggest killing Mrs. Wilberforce outright.
  • Sanity Slippage: Professor Marcus at the end. After his plan has totally gone belly-up, Louis calling him "crazy" for the second time is the last straw.
    Professor Marcus: You mustn't say things like that Louis because I told you, YOU MUSTN'T MAKE ME ANGRY!
  • Scarf of Asskicking: Professor Marcus is a very subtle example of this trope.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The picture of Captain Wilberforce is Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne from Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which all the D'Ascoynes were played by Guiness.
    • Alec Guiness' performance is essentially aping fellow actor Alastair Sim (best known as Scrooge in the 1951 film), the role having allegedly been written for Sim in the first place.
  • A Simple Plan: The more complicated plan (the theft) goes off without a hitch. The simple plan is killing the annoying old woman in the house.
  • Slasher Smile: Professor Marcus does several throughout the film.
  • Smoking Is Cool: After all, it is The '50s.
  • Spanner in the Works: The old woman, regardless is so annoying that the gang eventually decides to kill her. They all die trying.
  • Stupid Crooks: Even the Professor, the criminal mastermind of the crew, is not really all there in terms of intelligence — he's just better at using big words and being intellectually fancy.
  • Suddenly Shouting: "Major, Major, Major... CALM DOWN!"
  • Taking You with Me: When Professor Marcus levers the ladder that Louis is on into the path of an oncoming train, Louis shoots at him while he falls. He misses, but Marcus meets his end shortly anyhow.
  • That Syncing Feeling: Even when only Louis is upstairs and everyone else is busy trying to catch the parrot, the record still sounds like a full quintet is playing; after it starts skipping, Louis takes it off the table, looks at it wistfully for a moment, and shatters it. Mrs. Wilberforce, naturally, is too dotty to ever notice.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: Purely by accident.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Mrs. Munsen, though on a smaller scale.
  • Vehicle-Roof Body Disposal: The criminals dispose of the ever-accumulating bodies by dumping them on the freight trains that pass below the boarding house.
  • Wicked Cultured: Professor Marcus.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: Professor Marcus outright asks this.
  • Windmill Crusader: Mrs. Wilberforce, to the point where the police refuse to believe a word she says.