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Then and now

By Times Staff Writer
Published March 25, 2004

  photo
[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]
A gang of crooks under the leadership of Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) pretends to be a string quartet and rents a room from an unsuspecting landlady (Katie Johnson) who gets mixed up in the scheme.
photo
[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]
Professor Dorr (Tom Hanks, foreground) presides over his gang of thieves, including, from left, muscleman Lump (Ryan Hurst, left), explosives expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) and tunneling expert the General (Tzi Ma).
Ladykillers' has its charms
The Coen brothers' latest is a good movie with good performances, certainly worth seeing, but they can do better.

The 1955 version of The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, is considered one of the best comedies produced by London's fabled Ealing Studios. Wrote critic Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian when the film was rereleased in Britain in 2002: "Subversive, hilarious and more English than Elgar, though written by the American expatriate William Rose, this is . . . a major jewel in the Ealing Studios canon." Flash forward 49 years from its original release, and Rose (who got an Oscar nomination for his own screenplay) gets onscreen credit for inspiring the update. Not surprisingly, the Coen brothers have tweaked things considerably. You can check out the original Ladykillers yourself on DVD, but here's a quick comparison:

SETTING

1955: London

2004: Saucier, Miss.

PREMISE

1955: A gang of thieves takes two rooms at a boardinghouse run by a dithering eccentric. Pretending to be a string quartet, they plot and carry out a security van heist. Then they must dispose of their seemingly oblivious landlady.

2004: A gang of thieves rents a room from a cookie-baking church lady. Pretending to be a Renaissance music ensemble, they plot and carry out a riverboat casino robbery. Then they must dispose of their seemingly oblivious landlady.

THE PROFESSOR

1955: Alec Guinness

2004: Tom Hanks

THE ACCOMPLICES

1955: A bebop hipster (Peter Sellers), a dumb strong-arm type (Danny Green), a cold-blooded killer (Herbert Lom) and a stuffy ex-Army major (Cecil Parker)

2004: A hip-hopper (Marlon Wayans), a dumb football player (Ryan Hurst), a know-it-all demolitions expert (J.K. Simmons) and a tunneling expert (Tzi Ma)

THE LANDLADY

1955: Katie Johnson, age 78, in her first and only big role

2004: Irma P. Hall, who became an "overnight star" at age 60 in 1996's A Family Thing

THE DIRECTOR

1955: Alexander Mackendrick, American-born, Scottish-raised director whose career floundered after his first Hollywood film, Sweet Smell of Success. Now considered a classic, it was a flop in its own time.

2004: Ethan and Joel Coen, Hollywood heavyweights whose hits include Raising Arizona, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? This is their first joint billing as directors (Joel is usually billed alone), although they regularly share those duties.

RUNNING TIME

1955: 96 min.

2004: 108 min.

[Last modified March 24, 2004, 10:31:44]


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