I'm slowly working my way through the Ealing comedies, which are the best known works of Britain's Ealing Studios that make many appearances on the lists of the best films of the UK. Produced in the 1940s and 50s, they involved such notables as director Alexander Mackendrick and the great Alec Guinness starred in several. I've seen three so far - "Kind Hearts and Coronets," where Guinness plays every member of a noble family that gets bumped off by an enterprising young relation, "The Lavender Hill Mob," where he partners with Stanley Holloway to rob a bank of gold bullion, and "Whiskey Galore!" Alexander Mackendrick's directing debut about a little Scottish island that suffers a whisky shortage during the war.
All three movies feature very likable people doing very naughty things. Reflecting the times, each film ends the same way, with the protagonists being caught at the last moment and facing sure punishment for their misdeeds. The comeuppances feel a little tacked-on, especially in the case of "Whiskey Galore!" where the audiences are meant to be rooting for the Scottish rum runners throughout. The bad end result is only made known through some quick ending narration, and is too remote in time to temper much of the impact of the victorious finale. This kind of iron-clad uprightness feels old-fashioned today, though it works very well for "Kind Hearts" and "Lavender Hill" because both of those black comedies feature protagonists who get funnier the more panicked the more doomed they are. The baleful look on Alec Guinness's face at the end of "Kind Hearts and Coronets" when he realizes he's screwed is absolutely priceless.
These harsher endings stick in the mind, however, because they're so rare in comedies today. Sure, Bialystock and Bloom end up in jail at the end of "The Producers," but they come up with a new hit show while they're in the clink and redeem themselves. Just about everyone else in heist movies gets away with it these days. The "Oceans 11" films have set the standard for comedies like "Mad Money" and "The Maiden Heist" where the thieves are heroes and the crimes are victimless. Even the remake of "The Italian Job" dispensed with the original's famous ambiguous ending and let the robbers get away. The only recent exception that I can think of that really delivered a rough retribution to a criminal protagonist was "I Love You Phillip Morris," which was based on a true story about a serial prison escape artist.
Does this mean that we've all become a bunch of rank degenerates since the 50s? Well, there are as many films that focus on the law enforcement side of the equation, like "The Town" and "The Taking of Pelham 123" to keep things balanced. Also, heist films are rarely black comedies anymore, and mixed endings would be out of place. I don't think anyone ever had any particularly strong sympathies toward banks or bankers at any point in history, but they've grown increasingly faceless and powerful over the past few decades, and in the wake of the recent fiscal crisis they're associated with a lot of bad and a lot of power. When small groups of feisty misfit thieves are so outmatched by the corporate overlords of our financial institutions, it's nearly impossible to feel too bad about them absconding with a million or two when investment bankers are getting away with far worse.
Of course rum running is no longer a crime, but merely a vice. One of the reason why "Whisky Galore!" is so much fun is because it has such a gleefully adulatory attitude toward alcohol, extolling its virtues as liquid courage and a wonderful petrol substitute. The fact that society frowns on its consumption is unfortunate, and the war putting temporary limits on access is troublesome, but that's no reason to hold back when a military cruiser carrying thousands of cases of the good stuff runs aground on your island. The film's relationship with whisky reminds me of the current crop of marijuana films like "Harold & Kumar" and "Pineapple Express," which also tend to end in high speed chases and everyone getting happily blissed out on the substance of their choice. I'm not pushing a more lenient approach to alcohol or drug regulation, mind you, but drawing the parallels is just too easy.
"The Ladykillers" is next on my list, which promises more Alec Guinness and more wicked black comedy misdeeds. There are a few things like killing little old ladies that will always be taboo, which is probably why it was the Ealing comedy that the Coen brothers chose to remake a few years back. I didn't like their version much, but from what I've seen of the other Ealing movies I'm expecting great things from the original.