Monday, October 18, 2010
Reeling Backward: "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951)
The two gold bouillon thieves in "The Lavender Hill Mob" are criminal novices -- a workaday salaryman and a manufacturer of cheap souvenirs. That's how they manage to pull off the perfect crime -- by combining their unique set of skills and circumstances with the appearance of being the unlikeliest of suspects.
Alas, as rookies they manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to their eventual capture.
The trouble for Henry "Dutch" Holland (Alec Guinness) and Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) arrives after they've gotten off scott-free, having successfully smuggled a million English pounds worth of gold across the Chanel, melted down into the form of Eiffel Tower souvenirs.
While preparing to unload the goods, they spot a group of British schoolgirls who have inadvertently bought the little gold towers after the shopkeeper carelessly opened the wrong box.
Now, if Holland and Pendlebury had kept their wits about them, they would have let the girls go and chocked the loss of 30,000 pounds or so as an acceptable loss. Instead, they go into a frenzy of activity, convinced the towers must be reclaimed or else they'll be found out.
They chase the girls all over Paris and then London, drawing attention to themselves in a way that simply letting those six souvenirs gather dust on a shelf somewhere never would have.
Of course, screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke sets up an impossible chain of events, in which one of the girls intended to give her Eiffel Tower to her policeman friend, and it just so happened that the detective on the gold case was standing right there when she gave it over, and he had a handy-dandy chemical test ready to prove it was gold, etc. It's a pretty tall Jenga tower of unlikely events. Anyway, Holland and Pendlebury could've just hopped a flight to South America directly from Paris.
"Lavender" is an enjoyable caper, even if one does mind the contortions of the plot. Director Charles Crichton keeps things moving at a brisk pace -- even at a mere 81 minutes, the movie never seems like it's in a hurry.
The main appeal of the film is that Holland and Pendlebury are regular Englishmen who probably never would've thought of committing the heist of the century if they had never met. Pendlebury moves into Holland's boarding house, and after Holland learns his new friend has a foundry at his warehouse, it gives him an idea.
Holland has spent the last 20 years supervising the transfer of gold bouillon from foundry to bank every day, earning a reputation as a meticulous and scrupulously honest employee. Ironically, even though he's directly responsible for a tremendous amount of his company's wealth, Holland is dismissed by his supervisors as an unimaginative drone, and his tiny paycheck reflects their disdain.
The real joy of the movie is less about the caper than these two invisible men discovering the thrills of attempting something extraordinary -- even if it is felonious.
The film ends with Pendlebury captured by the police and Holland having made his escape to Rio de Janeiro and setting himself up as a wealthy playboy. It's all a ruse, though, since he only escaped with the six gold souvenirs, which funded one year of "a life to which I had been unaccustomed."
A young Audrey Hepburn can be glimpsed giving Holland a kiss at the beginning; even screen legends got their start playing nightclub girls, hotel receptionists and Frieda the cigarette girl.
3 stars out of four