BAFTA winning and much beloved, The Lavender Hill Mob is the most fun you can have in black and white. Rollicking along from the gilded halls of the Bank of England to the dank cellars of South London, then on to Paris and back again, it’s a heist movie with an Ealing twinkle in its eye and tongue firmly planted in its cheek. There are nail-gnawing car chases, breakneck getaways and deviously hatched schemes to suck you into the mob’s shenanigans, but it’s the comic performances that bring you back for more. You’d be in good company. Martin Scorsese, an Ealing aficionado to the core, has lent his weight to a newly spruced, digitally-enhanced version. To mark the release and the film’s 60th birthday, Empire has laid its hands on some rare glimpses behind the scenes. Keep your eyes peeled for a certain star in the making.
The Lavender Hill Mob may not have the murderous intent or sharp edges of Ealing Studio bedfellows like Kind Hearts And Coronets and The Ladykillers, but it shares that unmistakeably ‘Ealing’ quality: irreverence. Cops and robbers outdo each other for buffoonery throughout, as Alec Guinness’s timid bank clerk Henry Holland attempts to make like Goldfinger and steal a £3 million of gold from the Bank of England. Of course, this is Ealing, so Holland uses native cunning and Stanley Holloway rather than a flying circus and a large Korean man in a hat to snag the loot.
Under the watchful eye of Ealing supremo and Lavender Hill producer Michael Balcon, the studio evolved from wartime propaganda into a late-‘40s/ early ‘50s purple patch turning out none-more-British comedy classics. “We made films at Ealing that were good, bad and indifferent,” reflected producer Michael Balcon, “but they were indisputably British. They were rooted in the soil of the country.” The London locations employed in the film bear testament to that, as this set-up in the shadow of St.Paul’s shows. The scars of the Blitz, while not serving as the plot device they’d been in Passport To Pimlico, are a frequent reminder of the austere era in which the film was made. If ever there was a generation that needed to see Sid James capering about in a funny hat, this was it.
Initially setting out to replicate the success of Ealing’s popular crime film The Blue Lamp, Ealing’s resident screenwriter T. E. B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke quickly dispensed with the notion of making another Bobbys-on-the-beat flick. It took him 11 drafts to find the right balance of levity and suspense. Inspiration struck while working on Basil Dearden’s gritty jewel smuggling thriller, Pool Of London, but that movie’s enveloping gloom and racial subplot also fell by the wayside. Instead, Clarke pitched Balcon a more capersome heist flick in which the mild-mannered bank clerk spirits the bullion out of the country in the shape of miniature Eiffel Towers. Here Guinness gets some casting tips at co-conspirator Pendlebury’s (Stanley Holloway) foundry.
Tibby Clarke spent 16 years at the studio and is as synonymous with its success as Balcon and Guinness. As director Charles Crichton recalls, the screenwriter initially had to work hard to persuade Balcon to agree to his new vision: "Mick (Balcon) was doubtful about it, but he'd allow people to go their own way. In Tibby's original story the plot had followed the fate of each Eiffel Tower, so a whole lot of new subsidiary characters [had to be] introduced.” On the suggestion of associate producer Michael Truman the story was simplified. Some credit should also go to the Bank of England who obligingly set up a committee to advise Clarke on how best to rip them off, something you couldn’t see, say, Barclays doing.
Clarke picked up a Best Screenplay Oscar for the script, making him one of only a clutch of British writers to win in the category. Should you ever find yourself competing in the most fiendish pub quiz ever, the other names to drop are Muriel and Sydney Box (The Seventh Veil), Colin Welland (Chariots Of Fire), Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love), Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and David Seidler (The King’s Speech). Sadly the Academy didn’t reshape the award into an Eiffel Tower for the occasion.
Alec Guinness’s Holland somehow projects both diffidence and the brashness needed to scarper with a ginormous stash of gold bars. It won him a hard-earned Oscar nomination (he was eventually pipped by Gary Cooper for High Noon). How hard earned? Well, this isn’t how Will Smith relaxes between takes. Guinness recalled one particularly hairy on-set moment in his memoirs. “Rehearsing a scene in which Stanley (Holloway) and I were required to escape from the top of the Eiffel Tower, [Crichton] said, ‘Alec, there is a trap door over there - where it says “Workmen Only” - I'd like you to run to it, open it and start running down the spiral staircase. Stanley will follow.’ So I did as asked. A very dizzying sight to the ground greeted me. But I completed half a spiral before I noticed that three feet in front of me the steps suddenly ceased - broken off. I sat down promptly where I was and cautiously started to shift myself back to the top, warning Stanley to get out of the way. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ the director yelled. ‘Down! Further down!!’ ‘Further down is eternity,’ I called back. Stanley and I regained the panoramic view of Paris pale and shaking. No one had checked up on the staircase and no one apologised; that wasn't Ealing policy.
If this snap is anything to go by, Holloway and his director made up after the former’s escape from that Parisian death-plunge. Holloway and Guiness, his co-star and partner-in-crime, got along famously on set, as Guinness remembered. “I got on exceedingly well with Stanley and we became good friends. He was always genial, easy-going and meticulously professional.” On location in Gunnersbury Park, a short stroll from Ealing, the pair are prepping for the climactic scenes at the police exhibition - and the unravelling of the mob’s carefully-laid plans. Battersea's Lavender Hill never actually features in the film. It was largely shot around Bank and Blackfriars, as well as closer to home in West London.
One of the joys of The Lavender Hill Mob is cameo spotting. Robert Shaw, James Fox and, of course, Audrey Hepburn all appear in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. It’s the pick of Hepburn’s earliest appearances, the young star-to-be was 21 when she was cast as sparkling Chiquita. Her character is a (not wildly Latin-looking) Latin beauty, keeping Guinness’s felon company in the lap of luxury. Hepburn wasn’t asked to do a lot more than look dazzling and help with the narrative’s front-to-back framing device – theatre commitments prevented her accepting the chunkier role originally offered – but even with only one line of dialogue, she caught the eye of her co-star. “I don’t know if she can act”, Guinness remembers telling his agent, “but a real film star has just wafted on to the set. Someone should get her under contract before we lose her to the Americans.” He wasn’t Obi-Wan for nothing, you know.
Alongside the pair in this still is legendary Ealing (and Raiders Of The Lost Ark) cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, prepping for one of the film’s two Rio airport scenes. Long before he followed Indy into the Well of Souls and the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, Slocombe cut his teeth in the less exotic surrounds of Ealing Green. Harrison Ford’s claim that Slocombe could measure the light using only the shadows cast by his hand might have been hyperbole (Look! A light meter! In his hand!!), but his mastery of galloping, edge-of-your-seat narratives is evident on a CV that includes The Titchfield Thunderbolt, The Italian Job and those first Indiana Jones sequels.
It’s only right to give the final word to Scorsese: “The characters played by Guinness and Stanley Holloway remain through time something you want to revisit and spend time with. You really love them."
The Lavender Hill Mob is in cinemas from July 22. It’s released on Blu-ray on August 1.