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A gang of thieves rent a room upstairs from an old woman, who thinks they're a musical band. Somehow, the woman inadvertently gets mixed up in their scheme without knowing it and then the gang must debate on whether to kill her or not, especially when they all like the poor old dame.
For more about The Ladykillers and the The Ladykillers Blu-ray release, see the The Ladykillers Blu-ray Review published by Dustin Somner on February 11, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writer: William Rose (I)
Starring: Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner (I)
» See full cast & crew
The Ladykillers Blu-ray Review
The perfect film to brighten your spirits on a rainy day.
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, February 11, 2010
Given the flurry of Hollywood productions hitting the home entertainment market each week, it can sometimes become difficult to step back and develop a new appreciation for the true "classics". I love big-budget blockbusters just as much as the next guy, but find the simplicity and charm of a comedic gem such as The Ladykillers a therapeutic way to revisit an earlier time in my life. It's been ages since my introduction to this crown jewel of British dark comedy, but the fond memories flooded back within a short span of time, and I found the production as enjoyable as ever.
For anyone new to The Ladykillers (or only aware of the Coen Brother's 2004 adaptation), the film was one of the final comedies produced at Britain's Ealing Studio in the years leading up to the invasion of home televisions. Written by Academy Award winner William Rose (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), and directed by American-born Alexander Mackendrick, the production gathered a wonderful cast of well-known actors for an experience that's one part tragedy and three parts comedy. If you've never seen The Ladykillers, you're missing an important piece of film history.
Living a stone's throw away from London's Kings Cross Station, Ms. Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) is the widowed owner of a large house with rooms to rent. One day a potential tenant bearing the title Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) arrives on her doorstep with plans to rent the upper apartment for his incoming band of amateur musicians. Intrigued with the idea of welcoming artists into her home, the naive old lady ushers Marcus and his motley crew of would-be thieves into her home, allowing them the perfect location for an upcoming bank heist. Taking advantage of Ms. Wilberforce as a key pawn in their scheme, the shady characters pull off the caper and believe they're in the clear. However, an unfortunate accident involving a cello case full of bank notes soon reveals the true identity of the thugs, sending the elderly landlord's conscience reeling. Filled with a sense of duty despite the ominous presence of five criminals, Ms. Wilberforce allows the men a brief opening to collect their thoughts while she contemplates how to handle the delicate situation with the police. This provides the bumbling thieves adequate opportunity to consider murder as their back-up plan, which rapidly proves more difficult than anyone expected.
With a genius set-up, The Ladykillers rarely misses the mark. There's always a fine line between hilarity and tragedy in films of this nature, so finding an exceptional dark comedy can often be an exercise in futility. Thankfully, the masterful direction of Alexander Mackendrick coupled with the genius screenplay by William Rose forge a perfect combination of dense wit and profound irony. From the sinister introduction of Professor Marcus, we immediately assume he has ulterior motives behind renting the upstairs space. After all, there's no better way to escape the watchful eye of the law than taking up residence with an innocent old lady. All goes according to plan with the brilliantly executed bank heist, but as soon as Ms. Wilberforce enters the plan, things quickly deteriorate. Between forgetting her umbrella at every turn, and unwittingly causing an immense conflict that draws the attention of the police, the innocent old lady soon becomes the catalyst behind the thieves undoing. Most people already know how the famous film concludes, but just in case there are one or two readers that stumble onto this review with zero knowledge of the film, I'll simply say Ms. Wilberforce is one of the most deliciously wicked bad omens in cinema history.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, the acting in The Ladykillers is top-notch. Alec Guinness had already made a name for himself through his roles in other Ealing productions, so despite not being the first choice for the villainous role of Professor Marcus, he turned out to be the perfect leading man. Watching him slither around the room with his snake-like impression is as unforgettable as his sunken eyes and overly large teeth. Rounding out his crew of henchmen, we have Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers (in his breakout role). It's exciting to witness a talented actor like Sellers before he became a legend, since you can already tell he has the makings of a comedic star. Despite the incredible talent in the male cast, the stand-out performance that always sticks in my mind is courtesy of 79 year-old Katie Johnson as Ms. Wilberforce. Prior to the film, Ms. Johnson had only acted in bit parts or uncredited roles, so this was her chance to leave a lasting impression on the world. Considering she died only two years after the completion of the film, it's sad to think how many talented actors are passed over for far too long (and perhaps never get their shot). One of the greatest moments in the film is the scene where Ms. Wilberforce finally puts two and two together, realizing for the first time she's surrounded by criminals. Most would assume she'd be terrified by the thought of being alone with men of such low moral fiber, and likely flee the house. However, she does the exact opposite, turning into a scolding mother who's deeply disappointed by the actions of her children. At that pivotal moment in the film, Johnson is at her finest, displaying a clear knowledge of the character she's portraying. There are many reasons to watch the film, but Katie Johnson ranks near the top.
The Ladykillers Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in 1080p utilizing the AVC codec (at an average bitrate of 27Mbps), The Ladykillers offers a knockout transfer for a film of this vintage. In case there are lingering concerns over the proper aspect ratio of the film, I've been informed by my fellow reviewer, Dr. Svet Atanasov, that the included 1.37:1 ratio is in fact the correct presentation of the source material. It seems the prior DVD implemented a degree of cropping (top and bottom) to generate an image capable of filling a greater portion of our widescreen displays. This new release adds that information back in (with wider black bars to each side), and accurately displays the restored negatives in the manner they were originally shot. Speaking of restoration, this is a fine effort by MTI Film, as documented in the disc's supplemental split-screen analysis of the cleaned image. Using digital techniques to remove scratches, dirt, burn marks, and other degradations, the team deserves credit for cleaning each frame but not tampering with Mackendrick's artistic intent. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts to restore/re-align the primary colors onto one central point, you'll notice the unfortunate presence of chromatic distortion, which lead to color fringing around the occasional dark border. In layman's terms, your attention could be drawn to a subtle line of red along the right outline of a character's black suit, as if the rendering of a specific color has shifted slightly within the shot.
Aside from the cleaning of the source material (and failed attempts to generate precise color convergence), the transfer looks exactly as you'd expect for its age. Fine object detail won't come close to the clarity of a modern production, but the presence of film grain throughout the feature suggests this isn't a result of any post-production manipulation. Rather, it's a natural element of the period in which the classic film was shot. Regarding black levels, contrast, and coloring, the film has never looked better. Some might complain that the image is too bright to reflect an accurate representation of the source material (the prior DVD was much darker), but given the depth of the color palette and black levels, I quickly passed off that assessment.
In the end, fans of The Ladykillers and classic cinema in general will be quite pleased with visual upgrade on this Blu-ray release.
The Ladykillers Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Despite the welcomed addition of a lossless upgrade, the 2.0 track merely offers a subtle increase in clarity and modest gains in balance. As I've stated before, we can't expect to turn apples into oranges, so asking for a monumental difference in a 55 year-old recording is simply not going to happen. Listening to the dialog-heavy track, I never noticed a shred of distortion, hiss, or dropout, and the vocal nuances of each character were reproduced with a high level of accuracy. Environmental sound effects are well-balance with the rest of the elements in the mix without coming across overbearing, and the whimsical musical score by first-time composer Tristram Cary adds a touch of character to the overall track. In my assessment, this is a perfectly capable audio experience that remains true to the nature of the original sound recording.
The Ladykillers Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Introduction by Terry Gilliam (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 2:58 min): This brief interview with the talented director demonstrates the level of appreciation he has for the classic production, yet barely scratches the surface behind his reasoning. Far too short, but still interesting.
'Forever Ealing' Documentary(480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 49:37 min): If you're a relative newcomer to the history of British cinema, this lengthy supplement is a wonderfully entertaining experience. Narrated by Daniel Day-Lewis, the journey begins during the early 1900's and continues all the way up to a modern-day update on Ealing Studio. Much of the documentary contains anecdotes from prominent modern directors and the aging actors that starred in numerous productions during the 40's and 50's.
Interview with Allan Scott (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 10:30 min): screenwriter/producer Allan Scott discusses several aspects of the film, including the acting, themes and production history.
Restoration (1080p, 6:07 min): devoid of audio, this supplement provides various split screen views of the film before and after the restoration efforts at MTI. In between the provided examples, we have text-based descriptions of the techniques used to clean dirt and debris from the image, or adjust aspects of the picture to come closer to the source material.
Interview with Ronald Harwood (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 7:15 min): As a friend of director Alexander Mackendrick, screenwriter Ronald Harwood discusses his experiences with the brilliant director, and the mentor/mentee relationship they shared.
Interview with Terence Davies (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 13:49 min): Director Terence Davies touches on his experiences as a film student of Mackendrick, and how the classic films affected his developing style.
Rounding out the extras, we have a high-definition trailer for The Ladykillers (in amazingly good shape), and an audio commentary with film historian Philip Kemp. The track is somewhat dry at times, but the wealth of information collected by Kemp is astounding. From conversations on the set to anecdotes regarding Mackendrick's compulsive desire for perfection, Kemp literally transports viewers back to 1955.
The Ladykillers Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Ladykillers is a must-own title for any and all fans of classic dark comedy. Combining lasting appeal, a first-rate cast, exceptional directing, and clever dialog, the film's relevance is undeniable. This new high-definition presentation offers a definitive technical presentation that exceeds prior versions in every possible way, while also managing to deliver an extensive supplemental package of value-added material. If you've been waiting for the right time to buy The Ladykillers, this is it.
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