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The troubled heart of Ealing and British postwar cinema

by Matthew Sweet.

It begins with a parrot and a gaucho band. We’re in South America – or a tiny patch of it, conjured some 60 years ago on a sound stage in London. The customers wear fur wraps and hair cream. The Atlantic stands, suspiciously immobile, beyond the window. And here is Alec Guinness, a British robber in rich retirement, sitting at a table, grinning a complacent grin and declaring his attachment to the Latin high life in that thin, high, gurgling voice. He is a prototypical Ronnie Biggs – and he’s prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

When a conspicuously privileged middle-aged woman stops to talk, Guinness presses a roll of banknotes into her outstretched hands – a donation for the “victims of the revolution”. A waiter receives a similarly thick wad of beneficence. Another gift is bestowed upon an almond-eyed beauty in long black gloves. Chiquita nuzzles her benefactor’s neck, murmuring her gratitude into his ear. Guinness’s face becomes a mask of bliss.

These are the opening moments of the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – restored and released into cinemas this week. It’s a worthy exhibit A in any argument for the richness and vitality and sophistication of British film, but useful evidence, too, for those who argue that our native cinema is unambitiously parochial and too small to contain a talent of truly great magnitude.

The reason? The film will not allow Guinness’s thief to get away with it: though we won’t realise it until the last reel, he is already handcuffed to the Scotland Yard officer charged to bring him back to Britain, rationing, and the fag end of the Attlee administration. And that woman pressing herself against Guinness, passing through the scene with a single line, is Audrey Hepburn – a future international superstar for whom British cinema failed to find a single interesting part.

Read the rest of this article from The Guardian.

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