One of the finest British comedies ever made, this delightful caper movie stars Alex Guinness as “Dutch” Holland – a mild-mannered and fastidious bank clerk who decides to pull off an amazing gold bullion theft and puts together the most unlikely gang imaginable to carry out his scheme.
The gang features Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), the proprietor of the souvenir company that will transform the gold ingots into seemingly worthless Eiffel Tower tourist trinkets and Cockney scamps Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass), who provide the gentlemanly outlaws with a little professional expertise.
Inevitably the robbery, which was planned to occur while the bullion was in transit between the refinery and the vaults, goes wrong, not least because the absent-minded Pendlebury gets arrested in the middle of it for stealing a painting off a market stall.
But the chief downfall is caused by a consignment of the gold Eiffel Tower souvenirs getting mixed up with genuine souvenirs on the sales stand of the landmark itself. A batch of English schoolgirls buy them, and Holland and Pendlebury have to chase them back to England to recover them.
The last one ends up in a police exhibition, and the now intrepid criminals steal a police car to make their escape, frustrating the hunt by broadcasting false messages from it, eventually causing a three-way collision.
The chase sequence is a parody of that in one of Ealing’s own films, the police drama The Blue Lamp, released early in the preceding year.
Holland escapes and appears to be narrating the story in a balmy South American paradise to an interested male companion. It is only at the end of the film that we realise the other man is a Scotland Yard detective sent to bring Holland back.
The Lavender Hill Mob was one of Ealing’s most successful pictures, and scriptwriter T E B Clarke won a well-deserved Oscar.
One of the curious things about The Lavender Hill Mob (the title refers to the seedy South London district between Battersea and Clapham where Holland lives in a dreary boarding house) was that its running time was a mere 78 minutes instead of the 90+ that was normal for a first feature.
The heist plan was largely devised by the Bank of England itself, to whom Clarke had turned for advice on how to steal a million pounds worth of gold, having explained that his request was on behalf of a film.
The luscious dark-haired girl in the opening scene in Rio de Janeiro who looks strikingly familiar is Audrey Hepburn, doing a couple of days’ bit-part work at Ealing when she was still an unknown.