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L is for… The Ladykillers

In our A-Z of Crime, ‘L’ is for the enduring classic 1955 comedy crime movie, The Ladykillers, directed by Alexander Mackendrick for Ealing Studios, one of the oldest film studios in the world.

Frequently lauded by critics as a ‘film to see before you die’, The Ladykillers blends a brilliant plot with classic British humour, strong characters, witty dialogue, fabulous acting and lots of real London locations. Screenwriter, William Rose supposedly dreamt the entire story.

The film won the BAFTA award for best British screenplay and stars Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner and Katie Johnson. The choice of Katie Johnson for the role of Mrs. Wilberforce was originally rejected by the producers on the grounds that she might be too frail for the project, and so they cast a younger actress – who died before filming began. In the end, Johnson received the BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance.

Controversially, the fim was remade in 2004 by the highly acclaimed Coen brothers but the new Hollywood version, set in the American south, was a pale imitation of it’s predecessor.

Synopsis of The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers tells the tale of a gang of hardened criminals plotting a robbery in central London. They work under the guise of a string quartet, lodging in the home of a gentile elderly lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Johnson). Mrs Wilberforce lives in a wonky, bomb-damaged house by St Pancras station, London and regularly spends her time at the local police station chattering about the crimes she claims to have witnessed.

One fateful day she is visited by the so-called ‘Professor Marcus’ (Guinness) who wishes to lodge a room for himself with the occasional visit of the members of his quartet. In truth, the Professor’s plan is to use Mrs Wilberforce and her home as a cover for a crafty cash robbery passing through King’s Cross. He uses Mrs Wilberforce’s house and the empty instrument cases as a means of transporting “the lolly” past “the bogeys”, whist Mrs Wilberforce remains oblivious to their plans.


The robbery itself goes according to plan – but whilst clambering into the getaway car, the dim (“don’ call me stoopid”) One-Round spills his share of the cash from his cello case in front of the discerning little lady. Their plan is foiled.

Mrs Wilberforce is partially taken in by the gang’s elaborate story that she is now considered an accomplice but retains her moral stance, encouraging them to return the money to the police. The gang now consider ‘removing’ Mrs Wilberforce from the picture. But who is to become the literal ‘ladykiller’? The film’s third act consists of reluctant drawing of straws and rifts opening in the gang, and ends with a comical twist that leaves the dumbfounded Mrs Wilberforce in a rather favourable position.

The Ladykillers poster

The original ‘The Ladykillers’ poster


The Ladykillers – on stage

The celebrated Ealing comedy is now on the stage – both at the West End and on tour. The show is adapted by Graham Lineham (@Glinner), the writer of Father Ted, and directed by Sean Foley (The Play What I Wrote) and boasts a star-studded cast.

More information about the stage show is available at theladykillers.co.uk.

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