We are on the two-a-month rental plan from Netflix, which helps keep our video viewing under control. But it also presents a challenge to me as the one who usually gets the job of choosing the films we watch—where to go next, so as to make good use of such a limited resource?
Fortunately or not, I know a lot about movies made before 1990 or so. With a few notable exceptions, the films I think are suitable for family viewing (our family, anyway) were made before 1965. And that still leaves a vast array of choices, whether you choose by genre or studio or actor or director. From which I have to cherrypick, in order to avoid boredom. In days gone by we might have had, say, a Fred Astaire binge, because even if we watched the fifteen or so best movies he made the binge would be over in a few weeks. Now such a binge would dominate a year’s viewing.
Just in the past few months I’ve made some notably successful choices, each very different from the others. There was The Seven Samurai, a three hour film (with subtitles!) set in medieval Japan. And Good Neighbors, the mid-70s British sitcom about a couple who goes self-sufficient in a posh suburb of London. And Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs, a simple story of tragic proportions set in a peasant village in early 20th century France (again, with subtitles).
For some reason a few weeks ago I remembered the incredible string of black (well, gray) comedies made by Ealing Studios, many of which starred Alec Guinness. They are legendary, but in fact I’d only seen a couple, and those a long time ago. After looking through reviews, I chose The Ladykillers. My description of the film—a gang of crooks involve a clueless old woman in their clever plan to rob a payroll, then decide to kill her because she knows too much—wasn’t received too warmly by the rest of the family, but they went along with the choice.
The movie is extremely funny, but in a very different way than most other comedies, especially contemporary ones. There is some slapstick, but not played broadly—in fact, it is quite gritty and realistic. The robbery is clever and intricate, but unfolds matter-of-factly with no frantic music or activity. Each of the characters is a caricacture of a type, but none of the actors hams it up. The the drama builds along with the comedy, quietly and steadily, and the result is much funnier than if it had been played over the top. (Not that there’s anything wrong with over the top. I love it. But this film was better for having resisted the temptation.)
The weirdnesses of The Ladykillers are quite deliberate, and it’s worth paying attention to them and pondering them. The sets are a cross between ultra-realistic and absurd, e.g Mrs. Wilberforce’s strange out of square (“subsidence after the bombing, you know”) Victorian home set smack between two ominous-looking tenement buildings and right over a tunnel under which trains leave and enter the station day and night. Many of the scenes are practically staged as paintings, as in the frame shown above. The music is some weird modern-sounding score, or what passed for modern in 1956. Some of the incidents, such as the crooks having to rescue Mrs. Wilberforce’s escaped parrot, or having to sit down to tea with her aged friends, do nothing to advance the plot but everything to increase the weirdness of the setting.
Alec Guinness does a remarkable job as the Professor. Although I’m sure that makeup helped, he manages to bring a realistic ugliness to his character that makeup alone can’t provide. It’s all tied up with his walk, his speech, the set of his face. Brilliant stuff.
We’re moving on next to Kind Hearts and Coronets, the first of the Ealing comedies, in which “a distant poor relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne plots to inherit the title by murdering the eight other heirs who stand ahead of him in the line of succession.” All eight heirs are played by Guinness.