Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is relaxing with a fellow countryman he has met in a Rio de Janeiro club, though their conversation is interrupted often by locals thanking him for his generosity, as he is fond of distributing his wealth among them. Back to the chat, and he explains how he ended up in this comfortable position: he used to work for The Bank of England in the gold bullion department, riding in the armoured delivery van to ensure not one particle of gold, never mind a bar, was lost or stolen on its journey to a secure location. But he was ever undervalued and taken for granted, and as time marched on he recognised he wasn't getting any younger and those opportunities for a life he really enjoyed were slipping away. What to do?
How about turning to crime and robbing The Bank of England, a drastic measure but an existence of knuckling down to the daily grind is not going to satisfy many, and in extreme cases may turn a chap's mind to what he can get away with, even if that includes illegality. Such was the jumping off point of T.E.B. Clarke's Oscar-winning screenplay for The Lavender Hill Mob, and what a script it was, a beautifully constructed, warm and wise comedy that doubled deceptively as one of the heist thrillers that truly took off in popularity in the nineteen-fifties, possibly because the feeling that getting away from the austerity hangover from the war years merely took an opportunity that should you be brave enough would change your life for the better.
And if that meant getting one over on uncaring authority and bureaucracy, so much the better. Holland represented one whose potential, creatively, romantically, intelligently, had been thwarted by the grey and downbeat Britain of his day, but would easily apply to any era for there are no lack of such lost souls down history to the present day, and this film has been a source of delight for those dreamers ever since. He is biding his time until he forms a plan in his mind to get away with a million pounds' worth of bullion, but it takes a chance meeting at his boarding house home - notably he has never married, and sees no prospects in that area - with a new resident, Albert Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), to bring that plan to fruition. With these two men the film depicted one of the most loveable friendships in all of cinema.
It was that affection the production had for its characters, those two little men who happen upon a way to realise their hopes and escape, that effortlessly translated to the audience as just about everyone who ever thought "what might have been" could wholly understand Holland and Pendlebury's yearning for something better where they could really appreciate their time on Earth, and possibly be appreciated back. When Pendlebury tells Holland of his job, not as an artist as he would most desire but as the manufacturer of trinkets for tourists, the bank employee realises he can use this, and sets up a scheme to steal the gold, melt it down and make it into little Eiffel Towers so it can be exported to France under the noses of customs, then be all ready to be picked up at their leisure. With the help of two actual criminals (Sid James and Alfie Bass), it all goes swimmingly.
But this was a Clarke screenplay for Ealing, possibly their finest achievement, so something was bound to go wrong and what wonderful chaos was spawned the second a collection of gold gewgaws are sold to a bunch of cackling schoolgirls over from England. That escalating mayhem was so perfectly realised by director Charles Crichton - just look at the running down the spiral staircase scene for the ideal distillation of the whole story - that there was rarely a more satisfying entry in the heist style, and the fact that it provoked giggles and chuckles made it all the more precious. The grand finale with the hordes of police called to mind Buster Keaton's classic short Cops, only if anything The Lavender Hill Mob was even sillier, yet as the last shot showed there was a poignancy, a make hay while the sun shines reminder that you can only get things your own way for so long. At the heart of it was that relationship between the two sad souls who devise the robbery, allowed a ray of hope and for a time genuinely enjoying life and all its possibilities. Music by Georges Auric.