By Mark Harris
October 25, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

From 1949 until 1955, a ramshackle studio in England turned out a series of barbed, pitch-black social satires that became their own beloved genre — the ”Ealing comedy” — and brought worldwide fame to their droll chameleon of a star. This five-film, no-extras collection — which gathers Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers (1955), and the non-Ealing-but-in-the-spirit Captain’s Paradise (1953) — offers a great opportunity to assess, 50 years on, what’s aged well (that would be Guinness’ superbly understated, Zeliglike ability to disappear into virtually any role and mine it for every laugh) and what hasn’t: The movies themselves seem a bit victimized by the on-the-cheap productions, the more-clever-than-actually-funny dialogue, and the occasional salvo of unquaint racism, although the sly, dry Ladykillers is good enough to make you understand why the Coen brothers are eager to remake it. Guinness’ delight in disguises — buckteeth to full drag — is evident in these films and throughout his career, but he gave one of his greatest performances makeup-free, playing the protagonist of the workmanlike TV version of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As George Smiley, a career spy whose most effective mask was his own blank implacability, Guinness found perhaps the perfect vehicle for the witty remoteness that marked his career. Both:

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