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Viewer Guide: “The Ladykillers” and “Rose Plays Julie”

June 14, 2022 | Richard Peña


The Ladykillers (1955).

This week’s double feature begins with The Ladykillers, the classic 1955 black comedy from London’s Ealing Studios, directed by Alexander Mackendrick. 

The “lady” in peril of the film’s title is Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce, a kindly but obstinate widow portrayed in a delightful performance by the veteran character actress Katie Johnson. Living in a house precariously situated over a railroad tunnel near London’s Kings Cross station, Mrs. Wilberforce is a frequent visitor to the police station to report wild goings-on, but her improbable stories are now met with patient indulgence by the authorities. However, one day something wicked really does come Mrs. Wilberforce’s way in the form of “Professor Marcus,” played by Alec Guinness in one of the great signature roles of his movie career. After renting a room from Mrs. Wilberforce, Professor Marcus asks her permission to also hold rehearsals for his amateur string quintet. But this “quintet” isn’t practicing their Boccherini; in truth, Marcus’s gang is plotting a security van heist. And when Mrs. Wilberforce eventually deduces that her tenant is up to no good, Marcus and his men must determine how to insure she keeps her silence. 

Also featured are Cecil Parker as the gullible “Major” Claude Courtney, Danny Green as the dim-witted “One-Round” Lawson, Herbert Lom as the menacing gangster Louis Harvey, and Peter Sellers in his first major film role as the Cockney petty thief Harry Robinson.  

The Ladykillers’ screenwriter William Rose reportedly received his inspiration for his script in a dream, and was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for his somnambulant creativity. In his first major film role, Peter Sellers was awestruck to be working with his idol Alec Guinness, but both actors suffered from deep insecurities, with Guinness equally in awe of the young Sellers. The character of Professor Marcus was written with Alastair Sim in mind, and Alec Guinness based his performance on Sim, further emphasized by his wig and false teeth. Herbert Lom wore a hat throughout production due to having his shaved his head to star in The King and I in London’s West End; Lom went on to co-star with Sellers again in The Pink Panther films of the 60s and 70s. Although The Ladykillers provided the 76-year-old Katie Johnson with the best role of her career, she was initially not cast due to concerns she was too frail; however, the younger actress who was cast instead died before production began, so the role returned to Johnson, which became her second to last film performance before her death in 1957. In 2004, the Coen Brothers wrote and directed a remake starring Tom Hanks, which transposed the story’s location from London to Biloxi, Mississippi.


Rose Plays Julie (2019).

This week’s double feature continues with Rose Plays Julie, an Irish psychological drama from 2019 co-directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. 

Ann Skelly stars as Rose, a young veterinarian student whose blank demeanor masks a powerful yearning: adopted at infancy, Rose can no longer suppress her longing to find her birth mother, despite the “no contact” restriction of her adoption papers. Learning that her biological mother was an actress named Ellen, played by Orla Brady, Rose travels from Dublin to London in order to covertly track Ellen down, eventually locating her at work on a film set. Rose later even pretends to be an interested buyer of Ellen’s townhouse. While Rose’s overtures are initially not welcomed by Ellen, relations between the estranged daughter and mother begin to change when Rose learns the circumstances behind Ellen’s decision, as well as the identity of her biological father, a well-known archaeologist played by Aidan Gillen. Finally armed with the unexpected truth of her origin, Rose embarks on a risky masquerade, only to come face to face with the violent truth of her past as well as her own vengeful quest for justice. 

With its disturbing plot elements and focus on shifting identity, Rose Plays Julie has echoes of a kind of Oedipal Greek tragedy, as well as the psychological hall of mirrors seen in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. However, the married producing and directing team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor also manage to weave in a very perceptive look at the fragility of mental health in contemporary society. Released in England in October 2019, plans for the film’s U.S. release were unfortunately derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, although the film was eventually screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October 2020. Making her feature film debut in Rose Plays Julie, actress Ann Skelly is currently featured in the HBO series The Nevers. Irish actor Aidan Gillen’s many film and television credits include Queer As Folk and The Wire, and as well as his recurring role as Petyr Baelish on Game of Thrones. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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