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The Lavender Hill Mob review: Charming Heist Comedy

Two characters hug each other smiling in in the film The Lavender Hill Mob

The Lavender Hill Mob gets by on the likeability of its actors, chemistry, and script, making for a breezy and charming heist comedy from the 1950s.

I doubt many people know anything about the 1951 film The Lavender Hill Mob. I certainly didn’t until I was offered the chance to review it. But I’m always willing to fill the gap in my knowledge of much older films, and I was curious to see Alec Guinness in a role that didn’t involve Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia’s brownface, so here we are. The Lavender Hill Mob sees former bank clerk Henry Holland (Guinness) tell the tale of his ambitious heist to steal and smuggle gold bullion (apparently an official term for gold bars; I learned something by watching this!). He enlists the help of artist, souvenir maker, and the most whimsically named criminal I’ve ever heard, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), along with thieves Lackery Wood and Shorty Fisher (Sid James and Alfie Bass).

Crime films, heist films, and even crime comedies are pretty much a dime a dozen, but The Lavender Hill Mob manages to stick out from the crowd just through its charming performances and script. Guinness commands the film’s tone with his lighthearted, frivolous energy that hooks you on every word of his sleazy little scheme. It’s not like he’s supremely down on his luck or under some obligation to commit this crime. He just … wants to for the money, which would risk having me root against him if he wasn’t so gosh darn swell that he makes me use the phrase, “Gosh darn swell.”

A big help is that Holland surrounds himself with one of the most amicable criminal gangs I’ve ever seen. Everyone seems to work together without any indication that they’re going to betray one another or try to weasel their way to greater prospects. A few of them even express their awe at this level of loyalty. There’s obviously a lot of great back-and-forths and tension that can be done with a less cohesive unit, but I found it simply refreshing to watch this level of wholesomeness – as far as crime gang standards can go – among people whom you’d expect would be at each other’s throats half the time.

Four characters on a staircase in the film The Lavender Hill Mob
The Lavender Hill Mob (StudioCanal)

The heist itself and how it all plays out is … amusing. It’s as entertaining to watch this group pull off intricate ruses as it is watching the most unfortunate circumstances throw off one thing after another to the point of comedically torturing Holland and Pendlebury in particular. Watching these smooth operators increasingly lose their grip on the situation in the most simplistic of ways is like if you took the relatable misery of Seinfeld and applied it to a heist story. The humor ranges from dry to juvenile, but it generally mixes all together smoothly enough.

I was pleasantly surprised by the climax, which contains one of the most well-done car chases I’ve seen in a film this old. Sure, it’s nothing crazy nowadays, but it’s impressively shot for the time and holds up without any laughably dated effects. (Which is more than I can say for an earlier scene. All I’ll say is that running down the Eiffel Tower never looked more unimpressively silly.) The film also makes up for a trope I usually don’t like – framing the story as a flashback that gives away a character’s fate – with a very clever last-second reveal that says a lot about Holland’s outlook on this entire escapade.

You’re not getting some complex analysis of the criminal mind or even a super elaborate tangled web of a story with The Lavender Hill Mob, but that’s clearly not what it’s trying to be. It’s a very breezy, casually funny caper that revels in how paper-thin the characters’ motivations are. Early 1950s charm is slathered all over it, and the whole film is done in a measly 78 minutes. The only demanding aspect of the film for me was just keeping up with some of the extremely rapid-fire dialogue spouted through thick British accents, as someone who’s about as British as a bald eagle eating apple pie … That means I’m not. The next time you’re in the mood for something vintage, fluffy, and fun, The Lavender Hill Mob may be the movie for you.

A new 4K restoration of The Lavender Hill Mob will be released in UK cinemas on 29 March, 2024 and as a 4K UHD Collector’s Edition and on Digital from 22 April, from StudioCanal.

The Lavender Hill Mob: Trailer (StudioCanal)
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