Before Lavender Hill in Clapham became a site of rioting this week, another gang of crooks based on the road resorted to thievery to stick it to the man. This earlier gang however was fictional, as well as being better mannered and much funnier. The classic Ealing comedy from 1951, The Lavender Hill Mob, has been released on digitally-restored DVD just in case we forget what a gem it is.
Let’s face it life can get pretty dull, especially when you’ve got a dull job in an uptight, fussy workplace, where they pay you pittance – who wouldn’t get fed up? Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) feels undervalued, “I was a potential millionaire, yet I had to be satisfied with eight pounds, fifteen shillings, less deductions.” Unfortunately although his boss thinks he’s “dependable to the last” he also believes he’s a man who does not have enough ambition.
Henry Holland works in the “good old bullion office” at the Bank of England, where he is responsible for moving the gold bars from the vault to the mint. He’s being doing the job, with monotonous regularity, for twenty years and in the evening he returns to Lavender Hill, SW11 where he whiles away his time by reading pulp fiction to his elderly landlady. However, all the while Mr Holland has been scheming (or at least dreaming about) how to get his share of the loot he sees gleaming before him everyday. So begins a hilarious heist movie in which the little man strikes back.
Heist movies tend to organise themselves – planning, heist and aftermath – and in The Lavender Hill Mob these elements float into place with remarkable grace. The trouble with Henry Holland’s plan is he needs an accomplice, luckily he finds one in the confident hands of the ever charming Stanley Holloway. Having recently moved into Holland’s digs, Holloway’s Alfred Pendlebury runs a foundry business manufacturing souvenirs. Pendlebury is perfectly primed for a life of crime as he isn’t best pleased with his job either, “I propagate British cultural depravity.” Together they recruit two proper, cockney, crooks, Lackery Wood (Sid James in an early role) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass) to help out.
This DVD comes with a short introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese, and it’s easy to see why such an accomplished film maker would love it. The characters are all likeable (losers), and the film is an object lesson in how to build up tension and create excitement while keeping a grin as wide as London Bridge on the faces of the audience. There’s even enough space for a car chase, which also gives us an inkling of what bombed out London looked like soon after the blitz. Of course, being an Ealing film, there are plenty of nice little comments on the English class system.
This is an essential DVD for any collection. Let’s hear it for the little man, the meek man, the fusser and the worrier – let’s hear it for Henry Holland!
As well as the introduction by Martin Scorsese, the DVD also comes with a behind the scenes stills gallery, an excerpt from BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) interview with the director Charles Crichton (who later directed A Fish Called Wanda), a digitally restored trailer and Good Afternoon: Mavis interviews the film’s writer TEB Clarke who won an Oscar for his screenplay.