“I understand you have rooms to let.”
I blogged earlier about how I stole a bit of Alec Guinness’ entrance in THE LADYKILLERS for my short film CLARIMONDE.
While I put my hands up and admit this without shame, I’d like to trace the influences that led to actor Alec Guinness and director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick achieving what they do in that scene in the first place, to the extent that I can. Partly to show that everybody steals, which makes me feel good about myself, and partly to try and illuminate the evolution of ideas in cinema, through one small example.
Mackendrick quotes below are taken from Philip Kemp’s majestic Lethal Innocence, which should nestle next to Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking on your bookshelves.
Exhibit A: THE LODGER. Hitchcock pulls of many grand effects in the expressionist manner in this, his first thriller. It’s worth noting that for both Hitch and Mackendrick were greatly influenced by Fritz Lang and the German style of the twenties and early thirties. Also, both men were graphic designers before they were filmmakers…
Matinee idol and sexual unusualist* Ivor Novello enters with a scarf concealing his lower face (like Malcolm McDowell, 40 years later in IF…). Guinness will appropriate the scarf, and the idea of revealing his lower face first, but he uses the lowering of his hat to achieve this effect:
Both Katy Johnson and the landlady in Hitch’s film are frail, older women (KJ to a markedly greater degree), afflicted with dowager’s hump, and there is an immediate sense of outrage that they might be menaced by this interloper. Both films play upon this unimaginable threat of violence being brought into a respectable home by some mysterious outsider.
The idea of showcasing Guinness’ trick teeth seems to have been present from the very beginning of the character’s conception. According to Mackendrick, Guinness at first saw the character in even more grotesque terms:
‘He sidled across my office as though he had a dislocated hip, which was quite gruesome but horrendously funny. So Seth and I had to say, “No, sorry, Balcon will never stand for it.” Alec got rather annoyed, and sulked for a little, and went and looked out of the window. And while I was talking about the script he was snipping away with a pair of scissors, and he made some paper teeth which he stuck in, then turned around and grinned at me.’
Guinness claims to have had in mind the Wolf from Red Riding Hood as his main model. But when he saw himself in makeup, he remarked to Mackendrick, “I look remarkably like an aged Ken Tynan; perhaps I’d better smoke cigarettes the way he does.”
(Guinness work emulating Tynan’s way with a ciggie raises him into the pantheon of Great Dramatic Smokers. Of course, Bacall and Bogart look great exhaling smoke, as does Valentino and, in more recent times, rather surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter in FIGHT CLUB. But for finding weird and impressive ways of actually handlinga cancer stick, I give you my Triumvirate of Nicotine: George C. Scott, Travolta, Savalas. Telly actually adopted the Kojak lollipop in order to wean himself off the snout, and the sweet solution was suggested by none other than Mario Bava, in whose LISA AND THE DEVIL the trademark lolly makes its debut. Now you know.)
Mackendrick went further, insisting that the entire performance was a gothic exaggeration of the Tynan persona, perhaps a revenge on behalf of the acting profession upon a famous critic (more on this theme soon). I don’t know if Tynan had ever been cruel about Guinness, but he called Ralph Richardson “the glass eye in the forehead of the British public,” which, as Sir Ralph noted, is uncertain as to meaning but doesn’t sound altogether complimentary.
But there is still more behind this characterisation. In LONDON BELONGS TO ME, directed by former Hitchcock scriptwriter (THE LADY VANISHES) Sidney Gilliat, Alastair Sim (native of Edinburgh) presents himself as lodger at the home of a middle-aged spinster, in an uncannily similar way:
I’ve ALWAYS felt that Guinness’ performance had something to do with Sim’s, in fact, as a child I believe I thought that WAS Sim playing the part in THE LADYKILLERS. Professor Marcus has the same shabby-gentile, vulpine weariness as Sim’s Dickensian fake medium, Mr. Squales.
And even then, there’s more. Moving beyond the character’s first few moments (about which there’s even more to say!), we get what seems to me a direct quote from Max Schreck’s iconic performance in NOSFERATU:
To present this character in all his glory, Mackendrick and his team give him a big build up. Composer and sound designer Tristram Carey (later of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) brilliantly organises music and FX to one end, creating a sort of dark cartoon soundscape where everything builds to a hysterical crescendo as Guinness rings the doorbell. Then there’s the beauty of the delayed appearance itself, as Guinness stalks Johnson to her home, a variety of pieces of trained furniture obtruding to conceal Guinness’ face. A high angle shot following the pair of them from roughly the POV of an invisible urban giraffe, seems drawn from John Brahm’s Hollywood remake of THE LODGER, though maybe it goes further back, to Lang’s M.
And on top of all that, Graham Linehan points out: “By the way, did you ever notice how Guinness is turning into a crow in ‘The Ladykillers’? Watch the way he lifts his coat up when he’s putting his hands on his hips.”
Well, now that you mention it… Maybe this is why all the raven imagery in the depressing Coen Bros remake. I mean, I know it’s there because of Poe and the whole Southern Gothic thing, but maybe…
One moment of Sir Alec’s monstro perf seems entirely sui generis and without precedence in the annals of screen acting. On his way upstairs, forced to respond to remark by Mrs. W, he delivers his reply from under his arm.
It’s not exactly the shock of recognition, is it? But it’s grand stuff.
Anyhow, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the story of THE LADYKILLERS, like those other grisly tales FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, came to its author (American screenwriter William Rose) in a dream…
The movie has, in turn, influenced other filmmakers — Nick Park’s THE WRONG TROUSERS is probably the most famous that refers directly back to Mackendrick’s film.
*Novello’s penchant was to lie naked in a glass coffin, feigning death, while muscular workmen filed in and mourned him, sexually.