Alec Guinness isn’t the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not exactly. Dennis Price plays the protagonist, a ruthless social climber who attempts to murder his way to a dukedom, but Guinness dominates the film by playing eight different characters of vastly different ages (including one who is a woman).
If the opening credits of the film didn’t clearly show that Guinness plays multiple characters, I’m sure a few viewers would miss that fact, since he disappears into each role.
The film tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian organ grinder. (Guinness isn’t the only actor in the film who plays multiple parts. Price plays his own father in a short flashback, sporting a thick black mustache.) Mazzini’s father died when he was a baby, leaving his mother penniless.
Mazzini vows revenge on the D’Ascoynes. He keeps careful track of all the noblemen and noblewomen who stand in the way of his Dukedom. Sometimes the death notices bring good news. Sometimes the birth column brings bad news.
After a chance encounter with his playboy cousin, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, leads to Mazzini losing his job, he decides that waiting for everyone who stands in his way to die of natural causes will take too long, and he coolly takes to plotting murder.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. I haven’t read the novel, but by all accounts the film improves on it. The dry, acerbic voiceover by Price apparently owes a lot to its literary source, but the comedic tone of the murders is amped up for the film. In the book, Israel Rank mostly disposes of his victims with poison, but in the film they meet their ends in wildly varied ways; drowning, explosion, falling from the sky, and a well-placed shotgun blast. And yes, a little poison.
Another difference between the film and the book is that the novel’s protagonist has a Jewish father. I think the name “Israel Rank” is a trifle too obvious for a half-Jewish man who attempts to improve his station through murder. And in any case, “Rank” was out of the question as the surname in the film since Ealing Studios’ films were distributed by J. Arthur Rank and most of Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot at Rank’s studios at Pinewood. The scale of the film was simply too large for the Ealing studio.
Guinness is a comedic juggernaut in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Price ranks with Hannibal Lecter as one of the most charming serial murderers in cinematic history, but the film also features two great performances by women: Valerie Hobson as Edith, the noblewoman whom Mazzini schemes to marry, and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, the seductive coquette who rejected him in favor of a boring, wealthy man, but with whom he carries on an extramarital affair for most of the film.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most pitch-black comedies I’ve ever seen, but it never devolves into mere gruesomeness. The witty and irony-laden script is one reason, but the fact that Guinness plays all of the murder victims is another. It adds a layer of theatricality to the proceedings that makes it difficult to take any of the homicides too seriously.
Ealing scored a real one-two punch in 1949 with Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets. One is warmly human and the other is cold and biting, but they both rank among the best comedies ever made.
Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”
Kind Hearts and Coronets will be shown on TCM on April 2, 2014.