The great joy of this film is Alec Guinness, in a role that prefigures, in some ways, his performance as George Smiley in the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Guinness’s particular genius is to bring charisma to the man who has none: to play a central character who is central to no-one but himself. And, of course, to play the man at the heart of the Establishment who feels that he doesn’t belong there; however smooth, however senior his character there’s always an itch beneath the collar, a subtle sense of unease.
Here he plays Henry Holland, a bank clerk whose job is to ensure the transfer of bullion from the smelters to the vaults. He’s been doing this for years, overlooked and undervalued, all the while plotting his eventual escape from mundanity by robbing the van. Indeed, we know right from the start that he’s succeeded, as we meet him somewhere in South America, liberally dispensing money in a louche expatriate club. And while his employers may regard him as ineffectual and fussy, he’s been busy reading crime novels to his elderly neighbour, stacking up tips on the criminal life. So when a new lodger, Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), arrives at his house, and turns out to run a smelting business of his own, Henry immediately senses that this might be his route to riches.
Holland is a classic English comic character: the man who feels robbed of some great destiny by the iniquities of class. Like Hancock, or Basil Fawlty, he’s neither quite an officer, nor one of the men; he has education and ambition but little social grace, and chafes against a world where merit just isn’t enough. There’s a great moment in the planning of the robbery when one of the gang says to Guinness, “You’re the boss,” and we can see the bliss on his face as he murmurs, leaning back in his chair, “Yes. I am”.
There’s a lot to enjoy here as Henry and Pendlebury gather their gang together and stage their bullion heist, and some very smart plotting as it starts to unravel. There’s also a brilliantly inventive — and slightly headache-inducing — sequence set on the spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower. But — well, it all feels rather purposeless to me. For all the warmth of Holloway’s performance, Pendlebury never seems terribly concerned about the robbery — he’s more interested in art — and for all the sly delight of Guinness, Henry too is a rather thin character. The heist, for all its audacity, therefore feels both victimless and undermotivated, so while the film never stops being enjoyable, it’s not really about anything. This makes it less satisfying than, for example Kind Hearts and Coronets with its dark social satire, or The Man In The White Suit with its debate about progress. But it’s all worth it for the goodness of Guinness, so here’s a vintage BBC retrospective of his remarkable career:
And here’s an interview with screenwriter T.E.B.Clarke about the genesis of The Lavender Hill Mob: