Remakes are very rarely a good thing — especially those reworkings of movies you love. And in my apparently minority view, films starring Tom Hanks are often not all that much more of a good thing. Combine these factors with the fact that the Coen brothers’ last opus, Intolerable Cruelty, was little more than an enjoyable trifle, and there were for me a lot of reasons to approach The Ladykillers with no small degree of caution.
And while there are a couple of problems with the film — an unfunny and cruel scene involving a thwarted hold-up at a doughnut shop, and a painful and equally unfunny flashback of an incident from the childhood of Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) — I’m happy to say that the brothers are back on track here. Those two aforementioned scenes — and, to some degree, the very inclusion of the MacSam character — mar the film mostly because they don’t belong in it; otherwise, The Ladykillers hits the eye of the bull with incredible frequency, and is one of the Coens’ most effortlessly stylish outings. This movie, with Ethan taking his first onscreen co-director credit, joins my Coen pantheon of favorites: Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
The 1955 original was one of the last of the celebrated British Ealing Studios comedies that more or less started in 1947 with Hue and Cry and ended in 1957 with Barnacle Bill (aka All at Sea). That first Ladykillers was also the fourth and final Ealing comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick — and arguably his best work. It starred Alec Guinness as the sinister Professor Marcus, a probable escapee from a mental institution and ringleader of a gang of thieves, who, posing as musicians, use the home of a slightly dotty old lady (Katie Johnson) as the base from which to pull off a bank robbery. Their scheme runs aground when their landlady discovers what they have done, whereupon it’s decided that she needs to be put out of the way. This is easier decided than done — or as Tom Hanks’ Professor G.H. Dorr puts it in the new film, “Mrs. Munson has proved a more formidable antagonist than one would have thought.”
The Coens’ take on this material is a happy blend of respecting the original and leapfrogging from it with their own inimitable creativity. The introduction of Professor Dorr, for example, pays tribute to the somewhat more elaborate and definitely more sinister initial meeting with Professor Marcus in the original. (The first Ladykillers milks the introduction presumably to delay the payoff of revealing Guinness — doing an unabashed Alastair Sim impression — wearing unhealthy-looking makeup and oversized false teeth.)
Similarly, the brothers introduce a cunning feline, Pickles — in place of the original’s nasty-tempered parrot, Gen. Gordon — to further complicate the plot, and they incorporate a very effective variant on the old film’s running gag of disposing of bodies from a railway trestle. The Coens also pay proper tribute to Mackendrick’s version by using the same Boccherini minuet as the piece of music the thieves are endlessly “practicing.”
The crime has changed (and been updated in terms of booty) and the character of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is a very African-Americanized variant on the decidedly English Mrs. Wilberforce. That said, the most notable changes are in the characters, who were generally more simplistic in the first incarnation, with the majority of the gang only sketched-in. Indeed, Peter Sellers’ role in the 1955 film is a surprisingly straight one, and has nothing of Sellers as we later came to know him (or as English viewers already knew him from radio’s The Goon Show).
In the Coen incarnation, all gang members are given very distinctive personalities — fleshed out with a typical assortment of the brothers’ quirkiness. It doesn’t all work, mostly because of the MacSam character, who seems to have wandered over from the set of a Chris Rock comedy. Everyone and everything else tends to be rather timeless. (MacSam’s f-word-spouting would-be-gangsta is a little too much of a specific time.)
The best of the film, though, is the best of the Coens. The script bristles with their uniquely structured dialogue (in this regard, they really are the closest we’re ever likely to get to a modern Preston Sturges), and both Professor Dorr and Mrs. Munson are assured a place as classic comedic creations. Hanks gets every drop of good out of the seemingly Tennessee Williams-channeling professor, savoring every florid, overstated pronouncement. When Mrs. Munson discovers them with the stolen money and remarks, “Professor! I’m surprised!” she is rewarded with the classically pedantic line, “No, you are taken aback. We are surprised.”
Hanks’ Professor owes as much to the George Clooney character in O Brother as he does to the Guinness original. It’s not hard to imagine Clooney in the earlier Coen film taking charge of a situation saying Dorr’s line, “I will handle this as only a man with my classical education can.” Irma P. Hall is sheer perfection as Mrs. Munson; everything about her is in character — so much so that it’s easy to believe that she would contribute $5 a week to Bob Jones University in complete ignorance of that institution’s poor track record on racial matters.
For these characterizations — and the wonderfully convoluted dialogue — The Ladykillers would be worth at least two viewings. Yet there’s much more in this rich film — ranging from its evocatively used gospel soundtrack to a marvelous running gag (cribbed from George Stevens’ Swing Time) involving the changing expressions on a portrait of Mrs. Munson’s late husband, Othar.
This one’s a keeper.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke