- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

The Coen Brothers and Tom Hanks have announced their intention of remaking “The Ladykillers,” one of the classic British movie comedies of the 1950s. “The Ladykillers” is a black comedy treasure, so the Coens and Mr. Hanks better handle it with care.
  Presumably, Mr. Hanks will be cast in a variation of Alec Guinness’ leading role as a fallible criminal mastermind who calls himself Professor Marcus. It was one of the most extroverted of Mr. Guinness’ great portrayals, diabolically exaggerated by such distinguishing features as a lank blond wig, a crooked leer, oversized dentures and body English that suggested a cartoon bird of prey.
  Having recruited four confederates for a successful robbery scheme, Marcus suffers repeated setbacks in the aftermath because of the elderly widow unwisely chosen as a dupe: the gentle, lonely, solicitous Mrs. Wilberforce, exquisitely immortalized by the veteran character actress Katie Johnson.
  Marcus rents two upstairs rooms in the little old lady’s house to serve as a meeting place for the gang. His cover story: They’re members of an amateur string quintet. Recordings of Boccherini deceive Mrs. Wilberforce while the crooks plan their caper. Like the landlady herself, the house is a beguiling Victorian relic, tilted because of subsidence a consequence of wartime bombing, Mrs. Wilberforce confides.
  “The Ladykillers” has been packaged in a new set of five Alec Guinness comedies distributed on DVD and VHS by Anchor Bay Entertainment. The package includes four of his best comedies made at Ealing Studios, including the two breakthrough hits “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Lavender Hill Mob.” The former showcased the actor’s virtuosity in eight roles, as ill-fated members of an aristocratic Victorian family targeted for assassination by Dennis Price as a vindictive poor relation. In the latter, Mr. Guinness established his flair for disarming, wistful sneakiness as a seemingly innocuous bank messenger who becomes the inside man in a daring robbery. The other two films in the set are “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Captain’s Paradise,” the only weak title in this batch.
  “The Ladykillers” was also the first respectable film credit of a comedian named Peter Sellers, destined to rival Alec Guinness’ success as an unconventional and inventive comic film star. The son of music hall entertainers, Mr. Sellers had achieved considerable popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a radio comedian, particularly as a mimic and zany for all pretexts on “The Goon Show.”
  In “The Ladykillers,” Mr. Sellers played Harry, the “juvenile” of the Marcus gang. A lumpy and amiable Cockney, Harry is set up for slapstick showdowns with “One Round,” a slow-witted bruiser played by Danny Green. Cecil Parker, a past master at jittery stuffed shirts, was on hand as a plotter called “the Major.” The fifth member of the gang, a chronically suspicious type named Louie, was played by a Yul Brynner look-alike named Herbert Lom who would later play Commissioner Dreyfus, the slow-burning antagonist to Mr. Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther farces.
  Not so coincidentally, Anchor Bay has also packaged a set of Peter Sellers movies. Five titles document his emergence during the late 1950s and early 1960s: “The Smallest Show on Earth,” “Carlton Browne of the F.O.” (retitled “The Man in the Cocked Hat” in the United States), “I’m All Right Jack,” “Two-Way Stretch” and “Heavens Above!” There’s also a ringer from 1970, “Hoffman,” one of the worst films the actor ever made and, sadly, all too typical of his work from 1969 to 1974. Mr. Sellers’ long dry spell began after his hilarious turn in “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” as an L.A. Jewish lawyer seduced by the sexual revolution. The drought lingered until the mutual comeback vehicle for Mr. Sellers and director Blake Edwards in 1975, “The Return of the Pink Panther.” It generated enough good will for two more encores before the actor, plagued by heart problems since a massive coronary in 1964, died in 1980. He was only 55.
  Mr. Sellers is in excellent masquerade form as an elderly, sweet-natured projectionist in “The Smallest Show on Earth,” which alludes to a neighborhood movie theater. “I’m All Right Jack” brought him the British equivalent of the Academy Award in 1959. Often exceptional when reflecting the frustrations of timid and overcompensating men who desperately crave dignity, Mr. Sellers portrayed a narrow-minded shop steward, Fred Kite, in “All Right.” His communist visions of grandeur are always mocked by lower-middle-class domesticity.
  The years have not been kind to “Carlton Browne,” which revolved around Terry-Thomas as an inept diplomat, the title character. Mr. Sellers, in Latin American disguise, was stout of body but starved for clever material. He seems inert in much of “Two-Way Stretch,” where he plays a convict who more or less runs the prison to suit his convenience until Lionel Jeffries shows up as a belligerent nemesis.
  “Heavens Above!” is an overblown satire of the clergy, and like most of the topical comedies made by the team of John and Roy Boulting, it has become terminally stilted. Only “All Right” seems to have eluded that fate.
  Mr. Sellers became a box-office favorite in the United States after the fluky success of a mediocre vehicle, “The Mouse That Roared,” in 1960. His banner early years were 1962, which provided both “Only Two Can Play” and the Stanley Kubrick version of “Lolita,” and 1964, which turned into a Sellers festival with “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” one of the quickest and most satisfying sequels ever made. Catching the Sellers bandwagon was a heady experience from the time he played the smug, elusive Clare Quilty in “Lolita” through his demented German psychoanalyst, Fritz Fassbender, in “What’s New Pussycat?” There probably hasn’t been a comic sociopath to rival his Quilty.
  While not born, like Mr. Sellers, in the proverbial trunk, Mr. Guinness was stage-struck and refused to be discouraged while training as a classical actor, apprenticed to the Old Vic, John Gielgud and Tyrone Guthrie at various times during the 1930s. Something of a latecomer to movies, he sustained a distinctive career for half a century after making a witty first impression as Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s 1946 version of “Great Expectations,” inspired to some extent by a resourceful theatrical production of 1939 that had been engineered by Mr. Guinness.
  Mr. Lean and Mr. Guinness were quickly reunited for “Oliver Twist” in 1948 and later for Academy Award-winning spectacles, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Oscars never caught up with Mr. Sellers, but Alec Guinness won as best actor of 1957 for “River Kwai” and in 1980 for his entire career.
  Although not immune to movie slumps, Mr. Guinness had a knack for recovering with renewed luster. George Lucas facilitated a major comeback, of course. He brought some useful gravitas to “Star Wars” by casting Mr. Guinness as Jedi eminence Obi-Wan Kenobi. There were further twilight triumphs for Mr. Guinness, especially his embodiment of spy master George Smiley in prestige TV films derived from John le Carre novels, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.” Eventually, Mr. Guinness had his own say as an evocative memoirist, the author of a three-volume set of reflections that began with “Blessings in Disguise” in 1985 and concluded in 1999 with “A Positively Final Appearance.”
  Although Mr. Guinness was 11 years older than Mr. Sellers, he died in 2000, 20 years after Mr. Sellers. Granted far more time to confirm and reinvigorate an already enviable reputation, Mr. Guinness aged very well. A Peter Sellers comparably equipped for the long haul, physically and mentally, would have been a blessing.
  Of the two, Mr. Guinness undoubtedly enjoyed the more durable and flexible career. Yet in Inspector Clouseau, the French detective born to be duped, Mr. Sellers created a comic identity more recognizable and enduring than any of those associated with Mr. Guinness. The two Anchor Bay collections are not unlike the careers they reflect. The Guinness set is consistently good, while the Sellers package is uneven but redeemed by the brilliance of the actor at his best.
  Both Mr. Guinness and Mr. Sellers were invaluable performers deserving of rediscovery by a new generation of admirers. There is no better place to start than the film in which their careers intersected, “The Ladykillers,” a high point in the annals of macabre movie comedy.
  Watch it. You’ll be doing yourself a favor, while keeping the Coen brothers and Tom Hanks honest.

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