Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Ladykillers (1955, UK)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Ladykillers (1955, UK)

In director Alexander Mackendrick's and one of Ealing Studio's best slapstick farces - this post-war, black comedy and crime-caper story received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay; the brisk and comically-macabre British film functioned as a satire of the contemporary heist film (including The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and shortly later Kubrick's The Killing (1956)), in its tale of a formidable old lady who repeatedly and unwittingly foiled the plans of a group of criminals; it was unsuccessfully remade by the Coen Brothers as The Ladykillers (2004) starring Tom Hanks:

  • the film opened in the 1950s with a view of an Edwardian estate situated in a cul-de-sac, and constructed over the entrance to a railway tunnel at King's Cross station in London; the home's resident-owner - sweet-natured, loveable, harmless, very-proper, elderly and widowed Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), was known to have a wild and strange imagination; as she often did, the eccentric, doddering old lady often reported her unbelievable suspicions to the local police station's Superintendent (Jack Warner); there, she was treated humorously and with great tolerance because she had often filed specious reports (i.e., the fantasy sighting of a spaceship witnessed by her friend Amelia in her garden that was actually only a dream: "She never saw it in the first place...the whole thing was just a dream")
  • as she returned to her home, where she lived alone with her three pet parrots (General Gordon, Admiral Beatty, and Mildred), she inquired about whether there were any responses to her "rooms-to-let' advertisement; she was stalked and followed - shown by a shadowy silhouette - by a sinister, shaggy-haired, ghoulish, toothy and duplicitous mastermind named Marcus (Alec Guinness), posing as a "Professor"
Sinister Entrance of "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness)

Silhouetted Figure Looking at 'Rooms-to-Let' Advertisement

Shadowy Figure at Mrs. Wilberforce's Front Door

The 'Professor': "I understand you have rooms to let"
  • at her door, he showed an interest in renting her two-room apartment in the rear of her well-positioned but dilapidated house with windows; she explained how the house was lopsided "because of the subsidence...from the bombing"; to appeal to her to accept his offer, he deceptively told the naive octogenarian that he was a member of an amateur string quintet that needed to practice and rehearse classical music
  • in fact, the string quintet was composed of Marcus' foursome gang of bumbling, odd-ball criminal thieves - they were representative caricatures of five troubled groups in society following the war: the corrupt political class of leaders, the violent and uneducated working class, the delinquent youth, the degenerate military class, and the distrusted, mysterious and shady foreign-immigrant
  • in addition to 'Professor' Marcus, the other four gang-members included drunken, dumb and brainless, beefy ex-boxer (palooka) 'One-Round'/Mr. Lawson (Danny Green), the spiffy, but jittery, pudgy, pompadour-haired, Cockney petty black marketeer and Teddy Boy wanna-be Harry/Mr. Robinson (Peter Sellers), gentlemanly, stuffy ex-military con-man Claude/Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), and the cruel and cold hearted, temperamental, smooth and suave, untrusting black-clad, Italian-esque gangster-assassin Louis/Mr. Harvey (Herbert Lom)
  • to be believable and go unnoticed, the gang members each carried musical instrument cases, and played LPs of classical recordings behind their closed door to fool their landlady (who was nicknamed Mrs. Lopsided by 'One-Round'); the LP records were of Luigi Boccherini's Minuet in E Major, and Joseph Haydn's Serenade for Strings Op. 3 No. 5
  • the gang's objective was to plan and stage a robbery of an armored and secure bank van that regularly delivered funds in shiny stainless steel boxes to the nearby railway station; afterwards, the group planned to store the heist-money (£60,000) on the platform at King's Cross station; and then the innocent-looking Mrs. Wilberforce would be assigned to pick up the "lolly" (loot); the "Professor" cased the station's regular deliveries and took photographs to plan the heist
  • meanwhile, the members of the gang (mostly Louis) were becoming exasperated with the frequent but innocent meddlings and interruptions by Mrs. Wilberforce: "Tea, coffee, mend the plumbing, give the parrot his medicine"; even Mrs. Wilberforce admitted: "I feel I'm being such a bother"
  • the heist itself went smoothly - the van was hijacked, and four steel boxes with the bank money were placed inside a larger trunk, and then driven back to the King's Cross station and deposited on the train platform; Mrs. Wilberforce had been instructed to arrive by taxi to pick up the trunk arriving from Cambridge for Professor Marcus
  • the transport of the money didn't proceed well (and caused consternation amongst the gang members who observed from a nearby red telephone booth and automobile) - Mrs. W. forgot her long-hated umbrella and immediately returned to the station, and then on the way home, she stopped her taxi and reprimanded a Barrow Boy (Frankie Howerd) with an open cart load of fruit and vegetables when she believed he was mistreating a junk man's cart horse that was eating much of his produce
  • during a chaotic, full-scale argument, the Barrow Boy's cart was overturned before his horse ran off, and the junk cart was destroyed; the trunk carrying the money was abandoned on the street by the upset cabby (after his cab was vandalized); later, Mrs. Wilberforce and the trunk with the loot were miraculously delivered by the unwitting and cooperative local police to her house (Harry: "The bogies brought it home for her")

Delivery of Trunk to Mrs. W's House by the Police

The Four Steel Cases of Stolen Banknotes Opened Up by Gang
  • the robbers were in the process of leaving the house as Mrs. Wilberforce was bidding them farewell; she inadvertently witnessed 'One-Round' accidentally spill the contents of his cello case (filled with banknotes), when his case's strap became stuck in the front door; her inopportune discovery of the money caused the gang members to return to the house to try to cover up their mistake and provide an alibi
  • at the same time, a group of her geriatric friends arrived at the house for tea, including Amelia (Evelyn Kerry), Constance (Phoebe Hodgson), Lettice (Edie Martin) and Hypatia (Hélène Burls); it soon became clear that the members of the musical quintet were implicated as the bank robbers by the day's newspaper headlines: ("a terrible robbery at King's Cross station at 1:00 o'clock this afternoon"); Mrs. Wilberforce expressed her righteous indignation to Professor Marcus: ("I am shocked by this revelation. Shocked and appalled"); embarrassed and humiliated by the revelation in front of her friends who were having tea in the sitting room, Mrs. W. chided the men: "Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen"
  • once the ladies left after a sing-a-long with the men, the group attempted to argue with Mrs. Wilberforce to ignore the crime; first, they reasoned that the robbery was victimless - the money was insured by the bank and there would be no great loss for the bank ("Nobody wants the money back....So how much real harm have we done anybody?"); a second ploy to justify the crime was to seek pity and sympathy by relating a tragic story about the Major's elderly and invalid mother
  • finally, the 'Professor' and Harry attempted to convince her and remind her, through blackmail, that she was just as implicated as they all were - as an accomplice: ("I'm afraid the police are after you too. You're as hot as the rest of us, mum...The job was planned in her house and she carried the lolly for us"); they even threatened that she would be 'grilled' with 'rubber hoses,' and have to serve her time sewing mailbags (while her parrots would be uncared for): "You don't want to rot in stir the rest of your life"
  • when she couldn't be fully persuaded, she insisted that the money must be returned ("Surely you don't intend to take the money. Surely we must send back the money. I agree that we must stay low and and buttoned up. It wouldn't be right to keep the money"), and suggested immediately going to the police station to turn herself in

"I would rather, rather go to the police station, and give myself up"

Drawing Matchsticks to Determine Mrs. W's Killer
  • the desperate criminals decided she must be eliminated, and have her death look like an accident or a suicide by hanging: (hence the film's title "The Ladykillers"); then, matchsticks were used to draw lots to determine who would kill her - won by the Major - who wished to avoid his prescribed duty at all costs
  • in the fllm's denouement, the plot to kill Mrs. W. quickly went awry - one by one, all of the criminals turned their frustrated hatred towards themselves; all of them were eliminated as they tried to betray, double-cross, and fool each other
  • (1) the Major tried to flee with all the banknotes and fell to his death from the roof after being chased by Louis, (2) upset and wrongly believing that Harry had killed the old lady (who was actually only sleeping) and run off with the money, One-Round chased him down ("You done her!") and vengefully killed him by striking him with a wooden fence post, (3) in a failed attempt to gun-down both Louis and 'Professor' Marcus, Louis killed One-Round (whose gun misfired with the safety catch on), and (4) during a stand-off between Professor Marcus and Louis, Marcus caused Louis' steel ladder to be dislodged from the side of the bridge to drop him into the path of a passing steam train below pulling open cart-wagons
  • Professor Marcus made sure that there was no evidence of the pile-up of dead bodies; each one was disposed of by being taken away in a wheelbarrow, and then dropped from a railway bridge into the open carts of passing steam trains
  • before Louis' demise as they were dumping 'One-Round's' corpse off the bridge into an open train wagon below, ' Professor' Marcus described to him how formidable Mrs. W. turned out to be - as a tribute: "I've worked on so many plans, and they were all good, but this was the best. Except for the Human Element. All good plans include the Human Element, but then, I admit you were right. No really good plan could include Mrs. Wilberforce, unless, of course, we had more men. There were only five of us....But it would take 20 or 30 or 40, perhaps, to deal with her, because we'll never be able to kill her, Louis. She'll always be with us, forever and ever and ever. And there's nothing we can do"
  • immediately after Louis' death, the sole-surviving Professor Marcus was unexpectedly hit in the head by the arm of an activated railway signal, and fell dead into another of the open train wagon-carts below
  • in the film's brief denouement, the sole beneficiary of the money was now Mrs. Wilberforce, who then ventured to her local police station to responsibly report the robbery to Sergeant Harris (Philip Stainton) and the Superintendent: ("It's true I carried the lolly, but I wasn't really one of the gang. I admit the caper was planned in my house, but it wasn't I who planned it...I have all the money back at the house. You see, I took charge of it. And they were so alarmed, they simply disappeared") - her tale was too unbelievable to be taken seriously - was everything this time also only a fanciful dream?
  • to her astonishment, she was told to just keep the alleged money: ("We want you to oblige us, by forgetting all about the matter. And don't mention it to anyone....I think as far as we're concerned, Ma'am, why don't you just keep the money?"); she took the opportunity to abandon her detested umbrella because she could now splurge on a new one - ("No, I don't think I want it. I never liked it. Now I can buy a dozen new ones")
Mrs. Wilberforce Reporting the Robbery at the Local Police Station

Rejecting Her Left-Behind Umbrella

A Startled Beggar on Street
  • during her return home, she gave a startled, starving artist a generously-large denomination bank-note that he at first protested

Mrs. Wilberforce's House - In Cul-de-Sac Above Railway Tracks Leading to Tunnel

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson)

Claude/Major Courtney (Cecil Parker)

'One-Round'/Mr. Lawson (Danny Green)

Louis/Mr. Harvey (Herbert Lom)

Harry/Mr. Robinson (Peter Sellers)

Five Gang Members Plotting Robbery

Pretending to Be Musicians

Heist Plan: Mrs. W. Picking Up the Trunk From Station

Mrs. W. Calmly Sitting in Taxi Cab (Carrying Trunk of Money)

At the Front Door, 'One-Round's' Cello Case with Spilled Banknotes

Newspaper Headlines: "£60,000 BANK VAN RAID"

The Gang Trying to Persuade Mrs. W. That She Was an Accomplice to their Crime

The Major - The First To Be Eliminated (A Fall From the Roof)

The 'Professor' and 'One-Round' Dumping the Major's Corpse Onto a Passing Steam Train Below

'One-Round" Misfiring With a Gun (with the Safety Catch on)

'Professor' Marcus Speech: "...Except for the Human Element..."


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