Sweet, but slightly eccentric, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) lives in Kings Cross, London. The local police are familiar with her and her excessive imagination. Mrs. Wilberforce is a widow whose only companions are her three parrots General Gordon, Admiral Beatty and Mildred.
One day a man comes to her house in answer to her ad for rooms to rent. The man calls himself Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness). Marcus says that he has some associates and they have formed a stringed quintet and questions if it would be alright if they practice in her home. She is delighted with the prospect of hearing classical music. In reality Marcus is the mastermind of a gang of inept but determined crooks.
The next day Marcus moves into Mrs. Wilberforce’s upstairs rooms. Not long after that each of Marcus’ gang members arrives at the house. Each one is carrying an instrument case. The first to arrive is Major Claude Courtney (Cecil Parker). Then comes the ex-boxer Mr. “One-Round” Lawson (Danny Green) and Mr. Harry Robinson (Peter Sellers). Lastly is the suspicious and hardened Mr. Louis Harvey (Herbert Lom). The gang members retire upstairs to plan their next heist. To keep up their pretext of being a music ensemble they put a classical record on the phonograph.
The gang’s plan is to rob the armored car that brings the bank money to the train at King’s Cross. The plan calls for them to block the road in front of and behind the car, disarm the guards and break open the back of the car removing the cases full of money. Then they put the cases in a steamer trunk and bring it to the train station. Believing that the police will be checking all luggage leaving the station they deposit the trunk with the luggage that is coming into the station. They then send Mrs. Wilberforce to the station to pick up the trunk and bring it to the house. The plan goes off with only a few hitches.
At the house they divide up the money and each gangster prepares to leave the house with their instrument case full of cash. On his way out of the house One-Round’s cello case strap gets caught in the front door. Pulling the case free it opens and the money falls out in front of Mrs. Wilberforce. The old lady figures out what is going on and tells Marcus that she intends on informing the police. The gang of misfits realizes that they will have to get rid of Mrs. Wilberforce.
“The Ladykillers” was released in 1955 and was directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It is a British crime black comedy. The film was made by the Ealing Studios Production Company in Britain and is considered one of the best comedies produced by the studio. In 1966 the film was adapted as an opera by the Czech composer Ilja Hurnik as “The Lady and the Robbers”. In 2004 a re-make of the film was done by the Coen Brothers starring Tom Hanks and takes place in Mississippi instead of England.
Part of the charm of this film is the individualism of each of the characters and how they interact with each other as well as with Mrs. Wilberforce. Her wacky personality manages to both infuriate and charm each of the crooks to the point where they would rather turn on each other than do away with her. Mrs. Wilberforce is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
According to director Alexander Mackendrick the voices of Mrs. Wilberforce’s parrots were done by Peter Sellers.
Director Mackendrick had always wanted to cast Katie Johnson in the movie. The producers felt that Katie was too frail to handle the role of Mrs. Wilberforce so they went with a younger actor who died before filming began. Katie was then cast for the part. Katie had been a character actor for years. She had one more starring role, as Alice in the 1957 film “How to Murder a Rich Uncle”, before she died in 1957.