The original film was digitally restored and re-released to UK cinemas on 29 July 2011 to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is dining with a fellow Briton in a posh restaurant in Rio de Janeiro where he is well known. He relates a story explaining his presence in Rio. It seems he was a seemingly unambitious London bank clerk in charge of gold bullion deliveries for over 20 years. He had a reputation for fussing over details and suspecting all cars he observed following the bullion van, but all in all appeared to be a man dedicated to his job and the gold's security. In fact, he had hatched the "perfect" plot to steal a load of bullion and retire. The one thing stopping him had been that selling the gold on the black market in Britain was too risky, and he was at a loss as to how to smuggle it abroad.
One evening a new lodger – artist Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) – arrives at Holland's boarding house in Lavender Hill. Pendlebury owns a foundry that makes presents and souvenirs that are sold in many resorts, including foreign ones. Noticing how similar the foundry is to the place where the gold is made into ingots, Holland decides that the ideal way of smuggling the gold out of the country would be as Eiffel Tower paperweights sold in Paris, and puts this hypothetically to his new friend: "By Jove, Holland, it's a good job we're both honest men." "It is indeed, Pendlebury."
When Holland suddenly finds that he is about to be transferred to another department at the bank, he and Pendlebury quickly move into action. They recruit two petty crooks, Lackery Wood (Sidney James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass), to help them carry out the robbery. The plan is simple but clever, and it succeeds: Wood and Fisher carry out the hijack of the bullion van and switch the gold to Pendlebury's works van. Holland, who is supposedly assaulted and almost drowned in the robbery, becomes the hero of the hour. The police find themselves running around in circles, unable to track down the "master criminal" who is in fact right under their noses giving them false statements and misleading clues. Meanwhile, Holland and his associates melt the gold in Pendlebury's foundry and export it to France disguised as miniature Eiffel Towers.
The plan goes wrong when the woman running the souvenir kiosk in Paris misunderstands her instructions due to a language mixup; instead of holding back the specially-marked box of Eiffel Towers, she opens it and puts them out for sale. Pendlebury and Holland, who have adopted the names of "Al" and "Dutch", arrive to retrieve their disguised bullion only to find that six of the towers have been sold to a party of British schoolgirls. A wild chase back to the Channel ferry follows but all sorts of hold-ups, including problems with the customs men, prevent them from getting to the ship and the girls in time.
If just one of those towers is found to be gold then the game is up. Pendlebury and Holland therefore track down the schoolgirls and, in exchange for a similar tower and ten shillings, recover most of the loot. One girl however refuses to return hers since she intends to give it to a friend who is a policeman. The girl delivers the souvenir to the officer, who is at an exhibition of police history and methods at Hendon Police College. Also attending is a police inspector who is investigating the robbery. As part of the case he checked up on Pendlebury's foundry and was told that many souvenirs bought in foreign places are actually made in Britain. A sudden thought occurs to him and he orders the souvenir to be tested. At that moment Pendlebury snatches it and he and Holland make their escape in a police car.
A confused pursuit then takes place through London, with Holland using the radio in the police car to give false descriptions of the vehicle in which the crooks are riding. Eventually, though, an officer succeeds in stopping their car and arresting Pendlebury. Holland escapes to Rio de Janeiro with the six gold towers, worth "£25,000, enough to keep me for one year in the style to which I was, ah, unaccustomed." But now, he finishes telling his visitor, the money is mostly gone. As they leave the restaurant, Holland is seen to be handcuffed to his countryman.Alec Guinness as Henry "Dutch" Holland
Stanley Holloway as Alfred "Al" Pendlebury
Sid James as Lackery Wood
Alfie Bass as Shorty Fisher
Marjorie Fielding as Mrs. Chalk
Edie Martin as Miss Evesham
John Salew as Parkin
Ronald Adam as Turner
Arthur Hambling as Wallis
Gibb McLaughlin as Godwin
John Gregson as Farrow
Clive Morton as Station Sergeant
Sydney Tafler as Clayton
Marie Burke as Senora Gallardo
Audrey Hepburn as Chiquita
William Fox as Gregory
Michael Trubshawe as British Ambassador
Jacques B. Brunius, Paul Demel, Eugene Deckers and Andreas Malandrinos as Customs Officials
Cyril Chamberlain as Commander
Moultrie Kelsall as Detective Superintendent
Christopher Hewett as Inspector Talbot
Meredith Edwards as P.C. Williams
Patrick Barr as Divisional Detective Inspector
David Davies as City Policeman
Desmond Llewelyn as Customs Official (uncredited)
Richard Wattis as opposition MP (uncredited)
Audrey Hepburn makes an early film appearance in a small role as Chiquita near the start of the film. Robert Shaw also made his first film appearance, playing a police laboratory technician towards the end of the film. English actress Patricia Garwood made her first film appearance in this movie at the age of nine.
British 1960s children's television icon Valerie Singleton also had an uncredited part in the film.
Screenwriter Clarke is said to have come up with the idea of a clerk robbing his own bank while doing research for the film Pool of London (1951), a crime thriller surrounding a jewel theft. He consulted the Bank of England on the project and it set up a special committee to advise on how best the robbery could take place.
Extensive location filming was made in both London and Paris. The scenes show a London still marked by bomb sites from the Second World War.London, England, UK
Bank Underground Station
Bank of England, Threadneedle Street
Bramley Arms Pub, Bramley Road, Notting Hill (finale: end of the chase)
Carlton Road, Ealing (zebra crossing on way to police exhibition)
Gunnersbury Park (police exhibition)
Queen Victoria Street, Blackfriars (scene of bullion robbery)
RAF Northolt, Ruislip (airport)
In the car chase scene at the end of the film, an officer uses a police box to report seeing a police car being driven by a man in a top hat. In fact, the driver is wearing the uniform of the police as originally set up in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, known as "Bobbies" or "Peelers."
The scene where Holland and Pendlebury run down the Eiffel Tower steps and become increasingly dizzy and erratic, as does the camera work, presages James Stewart's condition in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, made seven years later. A film montage of sensational newspaper headlines marks the crime as taking place in August 1950.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Guinness was nominated for the award of Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film also won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.