The Classic Heist Comedy That Gave The Original Obi-Wan Kenobi His First Oscar Nomination

While many modern audiences know him best for his dignified performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars: A New Hope," Alec Guinness had a long and successful career on stage and screen decades before taking up residence in the deserts of Tatooine.

During his celebrated career as one of Britain's best-loved actors, Guinness won awards and received a knighthood, but it was George Lucas' space opera that made him a very rich man. The actor was famously dismissive of the film and his role as Obi-Wan. In his letters published in Piers Paul Read's "Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography" (via Dangerous Minds), Guinness referred to the script as "fairytale rubbish" and called the dialogue "lamentable." He later claimed he suggested killing the character off to make the character stronger. In reality, it was because he "couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines" (via

He was a little more effusive about the film during a TV interview with Michael Parkinson, where he looks very chuffed with himself about the 2.25% share of the gross profits he'd landed. Rather prophetically, he also expressed concern that people would read far too much into the movie.

As good as Guinness is as Luke Skywalker's Gandalf-like mentor, it hardly ranks among his finest performances. For those, you need to delve further back into his astonishingly varied career where he was equally adept at playing comedy or drama, light or shade, jovial or sinister, upstanding or villainous. The biggest mystery is how an actor so talented didn't win more awards.

The outstanding poet of anonymity

Describing himself as a reticent man (via New York Times), Alec Guinness had a knack for vanishing into a character. You always knew you were watching him, of course, but there was a transparency to his acting style that allowed you to see through to the heart of the person he was playing. Peter Ustinov, who worked with Guinness on "The Comedians," called him "the outstanding poet of anonymity."

Guinness' versatility and range was evident from his first two film roles, David Lean's excellent adaptations of "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist." In the first, he played the irrepressibly cheery Herbert Pocket before disappearing under heavy makeup for a memorable portrayal as the cunning, grasping Fagin.

He won an Oscar for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" with the epitome of British stiff upper lip, and his range and gravity allowed him to commandingly play everyone from prime ministers (Disraeli in "The Mudlark") to tyrants (Hitler in "Hitler: The Last Ten Days") and Arab nobility (Prince Faisal in "Lawrence of Arabia"). Ever the private man, one of his great later roles came after "A New Hope," where he was perfectly cast as old-school espionage agent George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," giving a masterclass in watchfulness.

In his early career, Guinness was synonymous with Ealing comedies. His greatest achievement for the studio came in "Kind Hearts and Coronets," playing nine different members of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family. Other notable roles included the honest inventor in "The Man in the White Suit," the fiendish ringleader in "The Ladykillers," and the mild-mannered criminal mastermind in "The Lavender Hill Mob," which earned him his first Oscar nomination.

So what happens in The Lavender Hill Mob again?

"The Lavender Hill Mob" opens in a swanky restaurant somewhere in Rio de Janeiro, where we meet Henry "Dutch" Holland (Alec Guinness) relaying the tale of a bank job he once pulled to a fellow British visitor. Cut to gray and grimy London, where Holland is a middle-aged, unambitious bank clerk. Over the past 20 years, he has earned a position of trust, overseeing deliveries of gold bullion in an armored car. His bosses see him as meek and subservient, which is exactly what he wants them to think; Holland has a plan to rob them blind. All he needs is a method of transporting the gold abroad, where he can fence it on the black market with less risk than at home.

Holland lives a quiet life, returning each night after work to the boarding house where he lives on Lavender Hill, spending his evenings reading pulpy crime novels to his landlady. Into this cozy environment comes the solution to his gold-smuggling dilemma: Alfred Pendlebury (the wonderful Stanley Holloway) is a new guest, an eloquent artist with his own foundry for making cast-iron souvenirs sold in tourist destinations like Paris. 

Now Holland's plan comes together. They will fake a robbery on the armored truck to exonerate him from suspicion, steal the bullion, melt it down, recast it as Eiffel Tower paperweights, then ship the trinkets off to Paris, where they can pick up the loot later. Having talked Pendlebury into it, they recruit two local crooks, Lackery Wood (Sid James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass), to help with the scheme. With the mob assembled, it is time for Holland's last bullion run.

Does The Lavender Hill Mob still hold up?

I'm biased here because "The Lavender Hill Mob" has always been my favorite Ealing comedy, but I think it still has plenty to offer a modern viewer. It's so genial and good-humored, with pacy dialogue and excellent performances throughout the cast. Central to the film's charm is the duo of Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as the gentlemen schemers, contrasted nicely with the earthy Sid James and Alfie Bass as the working-class career criminals in the gang.

Guinness gives such a wily portrayal of Holland. Beyond the bland features we can almost see the mind of a avaricious schemer and sly manipulator at work, a man who has cultivated a milquetoast image for many patient years before his moment has come, reveling in his new role as criminal mastermind. He received his first Oscar nomination for his performance, losing out for Best Actor to Gary Cooper in "High Noon."

The film is deftly directed by Charles Crichton, who keeps the action moving along at a breezy pace. Visiting Paris to collect their spoils, Holland and Pendlebury are aghast to find that the wrong crate has been opened and a group of English schoolgirls have bought several of the gold paperweights. Desperately pursuing the girls back to Britain to try retrieving the incriminating trinkets, the last act of the film is a series of spirited, suspenseful set pieces.

Naturally, a 70-year-old film like "The Lavender Hill Mob" is a little dated, with a Blitz-haunted background of postwar London that is almost unrecognizable from the cosmopolitan city of today. Even so, this lovable caper easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the modern greats of the heist genre.