Ladykillers, The (2004) ***
Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen from ‘The Ladykillers’ by William Rose. Producers: the Coens, Tom Jacobson, Barry Josephson, Barry Sonnenfeld. Photography: Roger Deakins Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K.
The infamous Nazi Hermann Goering used to say: “Whenever I hear the word “culture” I reach for my gun.” That was stupid. Most film critics as well as movie connoisseurs think : “ Whenever a film is a remake, I reach for my red pencil.” That’s not stupid.
Many, even most remakes are poor, but there exist a few good ones. The new version of “The Ladykillers” by the generally admirable Coen brothers is a colorful remake-cum-transposition of the eponymous 1955 British picture which starred Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. With it, director Alexander Mackendrick added more jewels to the Ealing Studios’ crow, as he had donewith the comedies “Tight Little Island” and “The Man in the White Suit.” He made only 10 movies, including the very serious American gem “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
The Coens have transplanted the earlier film from London to Mississippi. A floating casino keeps its earnings on terra firma, in a location next to the lovely home of old, churchgoing and strong-willed widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall.) As in the older film, a motley crew of malefactors, here headed by Professor G.H. Dorr ( Tom Hanks,) is after the money. The Professor, a paragon of elegant southern good manners, talks and talks. He also talks Mrs. Manson into renting him a room, and putting her root cellar at the disposal of his “chamber music group” for practice. (Recordings supply those sounds) The thieves plan to dig a channel from the cellar to the nearby building where much cash is stashed.
Hanks is a minor marvel in his extravagant white outfit (a reference to “The Man in the White Suit”?) which outdoes that of Colonel Sanders. (There are no chickens in the story but we get a wonderful orange cat.) Hanks’s florid suit is matched by his flamboyant language in prose and poetry. He claims to be a University Professor, with several degrees which include a baccalaureate from the French Sorbonne University, which sounds like “sore bone” to Mrs. Manson. The Professor does not realize that the French “baccalaureat” is a pre-university degree--but otherwise his demeanor is amusingly impressive and almost touchingly poetic.
The thieves are mostly specialists, save for Marlon Wayans whose barrage of f-word expletives gets the movie an R rating. The movie is a succession of bravura scenes –perhaps too many of them—and of too abundant colorfulness that often takes over the show. However, and most welcome, are the splendid, energetic Gospel singing, choirs and music.
When Mrs. Manson does discover the secret of the heisters, the latter wants to kill her (not to worry, they don’t make it)… and some matters becomes rushed, a bit inchoate and mechanical. Still, the performances of Hanks and of Hall are splendid and remain fresh. The Coen Brothers also sneak in (covertly) several movie and historical references (a la New Wave) which may be hard to identify fully on one viewing. Overtly, they add items such as Bob Jones University which the nice but naïve and uninformed Mrs. Manson supports with donations.
Movie maniacs, please note. Curiously, the original British film came out in late 1955, only months after the release of the French film “Rififi,” a classic heist movie directed by the American Jules Dassin. There, a gang robs a big jewelry store at night by drilling the floor above the store to get access to the jewels. It contains the longest ever silent sequence of any motion picture.