A little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), ventures into the police station at the end of her road, and she's a familiar face there. Not because she is involved with crime, but because she wants to let them know about the business she hears about from her friends; today she's clearing up the tale she told the Superintendent (Jack Warner) about a spaceship from another world her friend told her had landed - it was just a play on the radio. The police tolerate her and send her on her way, but as she wanders back to her house she is followed. Mrs Wilberforce has a room to rent, and once she gets in the doorbell rings. The man at the door introduces himself as Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), and he's a man with a plan...
The last of the classic Ealing comedies was this sepulchral effort, scripted by Oscar nominated William Rose, writer of Genevieve, and reputedly inspired by a dream. It must have been something close to a nightmare, as far from being laugh a minute The Ladykillers is creepy and menacing, shot in various hues of grey despite being a colour film, with the old lady (as she is simply called in the credits) the only ray of dotty, innocent sunshine in the whole film. The lightness of touch of the other Ealing comedies has given way to a deep rooted despair at a Britain still struggling with post war austerity even ten years after the Second World War has ended.
The Professor (who isn't a real professor, as we quickly surmise) is introduced in sinister silhouette as if he were a horror movie villain. With his ill-fitting teeth making him look like Alastair Sim, who was supposedly up for the role originally, Guinness is enough to make your skin crawl just by smiling - I like the way he removes his hat, as if receiving news of a bereavement - and his funereal demeanour is perfect for the rundown surroundings. What the Professor asks for is the use of the room to practice with his string quintet, but what he really wants to do there is carry out his schemes for a heist, which Mrs Wilberforce will be unwittingly drawn into.
The members of his gang are unlikely musicians, but the old lady is fooled by the sound of a gramophone record playing the music for them as they plot. Cecil Parker is the Major, a posh sounding chap who you can believe has fallen on hard times, Herbert Lom is Louis, a threatening European, Peter Sellers is Harry, an of his time Teddy Boy, and Danny Green is One Round, a hulking "muscle man". We get an inkling that they may not be the most efficient of criminals around when faced with the prospect of retrieving Mrs Wilberforce's escaped parrot (listen for it squawking "Alec Guinness!"), which leads them into a terrible fuss.
The old lady is told to collect a large case from the local railway station, unaware that it contains cash from the robbery that the five villains have just carried out. It goes as smoothly as can be expected with Mrs Wilberforce included, that is she eventually is taken to the police station for setting off a public disorder thanks to Frankie Howerd's fruit stall, but the money is safely stored in her house after the kerfuffle is over. What happens then is a most ominous development when an accident with the departing criminals reveals the "lolly" to her. For a comedy, The Ladykillers is a sombre film, as it is decided by the Professor and company that Mrs Wilberforce is a liability and regrettably must be bumped off. But the forces of evil come to grief at the hands of the forces of sweetness; is it funny? Sometimes, but what stays with you is the oppressive atmosphere of desperation and the skill with which our heroine rises above it thanks to her strong sense of decency. Music by Tristram Cary.