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October 30, 2014

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Ladykillers, The
(Reviewed April 16, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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Like so many others of the Coen brothers’ films, The Ladykillers looks less like a regular movie than it does like a test of movie-making skills that the directors have set for themselves. The test in this case was to see if they could re-make the classic Ealing Studios comedy of the same name — written by William Rose, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness — while moving it lock, stock and barrel from London, 1955 to the American South, today. I wonder if many ordinary movie-goers realize quite what a strenuous test this is? The original Ladykillers was utterly of its time and place and would have been almost inconceivable apart from British manners and attitudes of the middle of the last century. As a result, some of the odder elements of it that are retained by the newer version make it seem to be taking place on another planet.

For example, the principal figure in both films calls himself a "professor" — Sir Alec in the original, Tom Hanks in the remake. No more is said of Sir Alec’s professorship, which appears to be a thieves’ courtesy extended by the rest of his gang to its brainiest member. But the white-suited and courtly-mannered Mr Hanks is given an elaborate back-story as a classicist who has studied at the "Sore-bone" and who often breaks into recitations from memory of the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Here the term "professor" is ironic in an entirely different way. Mr Hanks grotesquely parodies a Colonel Sanders-type old-time Southern gentleman, which is itself a parody of an original now all but lost to the popular imagination. It advertises itself as not belonging to the South but to Coen-land — perhaps so as to avoid giving offense.

Both professors take lodgings with an aged landlady — Katie Johnson’s Mrs Wilberforce in the original, Irma P. Hall’s Marva Munson in the remake — while planning an elaborate criminal enterprise. They disguise their planning sessions by pretending to be musicians. When in both cases the landlady finds out their true purposes, the criminal gang conclude that she must be killed but find themselves strangely unable to kill her. Instead, they themselves are killed off one by one. In the original, there is no mystery about the reluctance of the men to kill the old woman. Though they are planning a daring daylight robbery of a postal van, they are not such abandoned creatures, as the Victorians would have said, as to be without scruples when it comes to killing old ladies. Especially when they are Victorian old ladies.

Mrs Wilberforce shares her name with the great Victorian statesman who brought about the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire. She remembers that her 21st birthday party had been interrupted by the news that "the old Queen" had died, and she is the widow of a captain in the Merchant Navy who, having got everyone off it and onto the lifeboats, heroically went down with his ship in a typhoon 29 years earlier. None of this is just incidental information of the kind we get when we are told of Othar, the late espoused saint of Marva in the remake, that he died before he was old enough to get the piles. Marva envies him that he was able to "go to sleep one night and wake up in the glory land" and sends five dollars every month to Bob Jones University in his memory.

Both sets of thieves attempt to bribe their respective landladies with some of the stolen money. Sir Alec, whose caper involves a daring daylight robbery of a postal van, tries to persuade Mrs Wilberforce that she will be considered their accomplice and go to jail with them and that, anyway, they only want to use the money to help old ladies such as herself. Besides, the victims "wouldn’t want the money back" because "it would only confuse the issue," the insurance money having already been paid at no greater a cost to its policyholders than a farthing on each policy. The tactics of Mr Hanks’s gang are slightly different. They have tunnelled in from Mrs Munson’s root cellar to the offices of a nearby riverboat casino which plies the Mississippi and tell her that a full share of the money from that "riparian Gomorrah" will be given to Bob Jones University — but that in any case the insurance has covered the casino’s loss too, at a cost of one penny to each policyholder.

Both landladies waver for only a moment. Mrs Wilberforce stiffens her resolve to turn the men in to the police when she looks at a photograph of her late husband and we hear the faint strains of "Rule Britannia" in the background. "It wouldn’t be right to keep the money," she tells them. "I know I carried the lolly for you" — the readiness with which she picks up the thieves’ slang is part of the comedy — "but even if they do make me go to prison and sew mailbags, I’d rather go to the police station and give myself up." Of this in the remake all that survives is "it wouldn’t be right." The Coens have to rely on the audience’s assumptions about Mrs Munson’s comically and idiosyncratically enthusiastic religious faith to explain her strength of character. This is fine as far as it goes — and it goes as far as another tremendous soundtrack, like that of O Brother Where Art Thou, this one full of gospel music — but it provides no shaming example to the thieves in the way that Mrs Wilberforce does.

All of Sir Alec’s gang, that is — even the spiv played by the young Peter Sellers in his first major film role — are dimly aware of their failure to live up to the standards of Mrs Wilberforce’s late husband. That is why they are uniformly horrified at the idea of killing her, though all agree that killing her is necessary and draw straws to decide who will do it. Each of them in turn then pulls back in horror from the deed, and so they turn upon each other. In the Coen’s version, although there is some degree of squeamishness on the part of the first of the gang to draw the short straw because Mrs Munson reminds him of his mother, subsequent failures to finish her off have to be made the result of either of comic accidents or of largely inexplicable decisions to betray one another.

But inexplicable is part of the comedy here. In the Coens’ crazy world anything can happen. As a result, even though the criminals do not prosper as they do in so many other recent movies, what is missing is the sense of a moral order to the universe, working out its justice, which is still present in the earlier film. In the Coens’ film, if the right prevails, it does so only accidentally, like everything else which happens to thwart the professor’s brilliant plan. Without the continual stressing of the accidental quality of events, much of the humor would be lost. In the Ealing version it is the opposite. The comedy of it lies — as much on account of the production codes that prevailed at the time as on what we know of the film’s background and milieu — in its inevitability. So does its seriousness. But that is a quality which the Coens simply have to do without.




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