In the years between 1947 and 1957, a number of film comedies
were produced by Ealing Studios
, based in London. One of the last of these was The Lady Killers (dir. Alexander Mackendrick
, 1955). The film has a fairly simple plot that only extends over two acts. In the first half, a group of criminals posing as a string quintet rent a room from a widow, Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce, and plan and successfully carry out a robbery of an armoured car. The second half sees the gang attempt to escape with their stolen money, until their crime is discovered (a cello
case falls open directly outside of Mrs. Wilberforce’s front door, revealing it to be packed full of banknotes). The gang decide that their only option, after a moral justification of their actions is ignored, is to murder their landlady. Their plans fail
however, as one by one each member of the gang is killed in a horrible comedy of errors as Mrs. Wilberforce sleeps. When she wakes to find the gang gone, she assumes it is because they managed to run away in the night, leaving the money behind. She is convinced that she has no choice but to keep it when the police
, who do not believe her admittedly fantastic story, jokingly suggest she do so.
This film was later remade in 2004 by the Coen Brothers, their first and to date only remake of an older film. Much has been changed, to update the story for a twenty-first century audience and to retell the story in more of a Coen Brothers style: the action is moved from London to Alabama, the armoured car is now an offshore boat casino, the characters are no longer caricatures but are believable as people and so forth. The basic plot has essentially been kept the same and some scenes are almost frame for frame replicas of scenes from the original. But these are only details- the Coen Brothers expanded on the story considerably, giving it a dimension of a theologically based morality the original seemed to lack.
The most notable difference between the two versions of the film is the presentation of the moral debate between the respective representatives of both arguments, the old lady representing the deontological side and the gentleman criminal and his gang as her antithesis, with his teleological point of view. If it was his intention to present a moral debate in ‘The Lady Killers’ (and several of his films do seem to be laced with very moral themes and character types), Mackendrick’s version only argues secularly, never bringing religion into the question. It is at least more secular than the Coen Brothers’ version, with its more obvious religious themes.
Mackendrick’s version of the film does however contain a lot of imagery that seems to be based in Victorian black and white ideas about morality- for example, the criminals all wear fairly dark colours, while Mrs. Wilberforce can usually be seen in light coloured clothes. The first few times we see Alec Guinness’s character, his face is obscured by shadow or an object. He is very much the Villain in a Victorian play- genteel, educated, charismatic and diabolical. Mrs. Wilberforce is a paradigm for categorical morality, ‘moral’ here understood to equal ‘good’. Professor Marcus’s gang represents darker forces. Perhaps with such clear-cut character types, plus the statistical probability that Mrs. Wilberforce was a Christian, Mackendrick felt that there was no need to make any kind of religious reference in his film.
Mrs. Wilberforce and Mrs. Munson (2004 version) may both be Christians, but Mrs. Wilberforce practises her faith privately. They both of course have very strict moral codes, but only Mrs. Munson admits to basing her morality on Christian principles- her faith is the reason why she not only disapproves of, for example, foul language in her house, but actively seeks to prevent it from occurring, punishing those who oppose her ideal world. Mrs. Wilberforce also feels duty bound to punish wrongdoers, but does not give her reasons for it as due to the teachings of the bible. On her way back from the train station, after picking up a chest full of stolen money, her cab takes her past a scene that horrifies her- a man is trying to keep a horse from eating the fruit he is selling. She may have been mistaken in what she saw, or the conclusions she came to based on the evidence she had may have been false. She is introduced as an octogenarian, an age when a person’s convictions are made faster than they can be thought through. She demands the driver stop the cab so she can, the way she sees it, defend an animal that is being beaten by a very cruel man. She goes so far as to order a boy to fetch a policeman. The comedy here is derived from a situation that is so absurd it almost forces the viewer to think about the scene he is watching- a woman who will not allow her moral rules to be broken, circumstances be damned. It is the only scene that seems to be geared towards making people think, although her opposing characters are not left without being made fun of themselves, as they become involved in practices that go against their own moral code, thus rendering their moral justification of robbery hypocritical.
The Coen Brothers examine the robbery with far more sophistication than Mackendrick. They altered the victim of the crime of the first act to a casino, probably with Christian morality in mind. It is because of the nature of what they are stealing from that Professor Dorr is able to justify his crime beyond the insurance argument of Mackendrick’s version of the film- that is, all the money they stole had been insured, and any attempt to return the money to its owner would only confuse things, besides which the number of policy holders the insurance company is shared by, including the robbery victim, is so large that the individual damage to each of them probably amounts to little more than a penny.
When the gang’s stolen money is discovered and it becomes evident to them that all of their hard work may ultimately have been useless, the Professor elects himself as spokesperson for reason and morality, arguing from all directions and leaving Mrs. Munson little choice but to agree (little, but not none). Tom Hanks’s character’s justification of robbing a casino reflects a sermon Mrs. Munson is present at around the beginning of the film, the subject of which is Moses smiting those who broke the first Commandment by worshipping a golden calf. Professor Dorr argues from this point, that the casino are also guilty of breaking a commandment as they are, besides setting itself up as a false god for people to worship, they are also stealing from people- casinos only exist in the first place because they are profitable and for a casino to be certainly profitable its games must be fixed so the house must win more often than not. This is stealing and from a deontological, Christian worldview, is absolutely wrong and must be punished. The punishment may itself be stealing, but Professor Dorr claimed that half of all the money they stole was to be donated to Bob Jones university, a liberal arts university/seminary, of which Mrs. Munson is a great supporter of. And the stolen money the gang got to keep, well, nobody needed to lose any more than a penny. It sounds very convincing but Mrs. Munson is ruled by a power that is much higher than reason and speaks through a portrait of her deceased husband. A disapproving look from Othar was all the refutation she needed. To her, stealing is always wrong, regardless of amount or where the money would eventually end up.
So the gang attempt murder- it seems like the only option open to them, but with Othar protecting Mrs. Munson’s house and life, they do not get very far. When they were stealing money nobody would miss, they were acting arguably morally, but when their thoughts finally turned to murder they crossed over into a realm of darkness. Now indisputably sinners, they were appropriately rewarded one by one with death, ending with Death coming from out of nowhere and claiming Professor Dorr, hanged by his own coat over water. These deaths are portrayed as having supernatural causes. The events that brought the deaths on could, feasibly, come about but they are highly unlikely to ever happen. The General, for example, choking on his cigarette and falling down stairs, would probably never happen, particularly not directly following his murder attempt on Mrs. Munson. Shots of the wrathful face of Othar are intercut with the gruesome events Mrs. Munson is completely oblivious to. This part of the film in the original version is simply presented as a black comedy of errors, without any supernatural implications. Mackendrick only intended to make a simple comedy but he left great potential for a more complicated moral debate.