The Lavender Hill Scam

Robin Witting


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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The Lavender Hill Mob is, for me, the crowning film of the Ealing Studios 'green' period. A film that exudes enduring period charm and panache. Forty years on it jigs merrily on between the ongoing blockbuster mentality of present-day videorama and the phoney intellectualism of avante garde cinema. 

Like the boy in the Emperor's New Clothes pricking the balloon of pomposity, it has far more to offer. The film comes across as a bit of lark yet it is one of the richest, most convoluted films ever made. Only it is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. 

The Lavender Hill Mob is all about role-playing, role-switching, and the illusoriness of appearances. 

A Babushka doll of layer on layer. Was it all a kick against post-war austerity and the soulless anonymity of pulling together that saw Britain through the war years? The film opens with footage of crowds flowing over London Bridge (an image straight out of The Wasteland) as Holland, the bowler-hatted bank clerk, speaks of the "dream" of millions. (He later uses that bowler-hatted anonymity to shake off the police.) The only difference being that he (played by Alec Guiness) lets his daydreams run away with him. 

Anything to escape the surreal, post-war, bomb-site that litters the Ealing films. 

You could say that the whole film is a daydream, a reverie, and a lark, retrospective as it is. 

Throughout there is an absolute jumble, a melee, of fable and reality, of villain and copper, etc. etc. 

Holland spends his spare time reading gangster novels to his landlady; he even tells Stanley Holloway to address him as "Dutch" Holland, obviously a hint at notorious hoodlum Dutch Scultz. In the opening scenes the security van is "followed" by a Chrysler: the very stuff of gangster movies. Only, this proves to be a red herring in a film chock-full of red herrings. 

There is the double take of Holland's finicky supervision of the filling of ingots, which parallels his surveying of Stanley Holloway's mould-filling enterprise. In each scene his shoe is splashed with molten metal. Talk about groundhog days! 

The real and the unreal: they await the erstwhile burglars with dummy guns as opposed to the real guns of the security guards, the third “burglar” is a constable, Holland’s faked rescue by the police comes close to reality when he falls in the Thames. Taken to the police station he is mistakenly thought to have been arrested, as he is lead into the station, then the “villain” comes out wearing a Metropolitan Police Gym Club jumper! The thief is hailed as a hero, Holloway makes his "escape" over the false rooftops of the Police exhibition, ending up inside an illusory cell which proves to be just as distressing, the two "real" villains trust their money to be sent on etc. Even the shadow of the burglar proves to be larger than life. The whole thing is like a hall of mirrors. 

The model Eiffel Towers meet the real Eiffel Tower, culminating in (the whirligig descent down the spiral staircase, where the whole damn plot becomes one happy mish-mash. Witness the illusory falling figure of hat and coat. Ironically, it is down to the mistaken 'R's' that proves to be their undoing: Holland cannot pronounce his r's. 

The film, like the other Ealing film The Ladykillers, has a "false" ending where they think they've got away with it all, and we see the ‘Lavender Hill Mob’ card blatantly displayed amongst the cards of more estimable bodies. We witness the outcome of their ill-gotten gains, had they succeeded, in their premature celebration as Alfie Bass falls off his chair. Could they have handled it? 

They find themselves anchored to reality all too painfully in the French Customs scene where they are bounced from counter to counter until they finally fling money into the air -scraps of paper? - leaving the various French officials in a scuffle. Recalling the scene in The Ladykillers in which the gang tries to quit their lodgings only to have Alec Guinness’s scarf, and finally the money-filled cello case, trapped in the front door. Franz Kafka eat your heart out! 

Things come to a head with the Police Exhibition. The real and the unreal blend, dance together, and finally crash head on in a mad scrum of constables, out-dated peelers, police cars, bogus messages, and dummies! 

Real policemen would not ask a ‘demonstration’ forensics lab to test real evidence, evidence would not be stolen from under the noses of real forensics specialists, real villains would not be present at such an exhibition, nor would they make their escape over props in the presence of dummies and Peelers. Culminating in the police reduced to chasing their own tails before crashing into the mirrors of themselves. 

They are even shaken off in the Exhibition by a sham Police Photography hoarding.  It is all images and illusions, from, dilettante artist, Stanley Holloway's phoney model business, to Alfie Bass posing as a pavement artist, to Holloway's misconstrued theft of the picture from the stall. Between the idea and the shadow falls the reality etc.? 

In fact, had The Lavender Hill Mob been made with more pretentious designs we would have the critics drooling with metaphors about its treatment, theme and construction. 

To end it all, having been lead to believe that Holland had made good his flight to South America, he rises from the table and strolls out handcuffed to his dinner guest: a police officer. 
 
 
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