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Tag Archives: Alec Guinness

Kind Hearts and Coronets (June 21, 1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Directed by Robert Hamer
Ealing Studios

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.

Greenwood and Guinness

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.

Alec Guinness

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.

Price and Greenwood

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.

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Great Expectations (Dec. 26, 1946)

I’ve never held Charles Dickens in the high esteem that many others do. Granted, I’ve only read one of his novels in its entirety — Hard Times (1854). Based solely on that book and the story “A Christmas Carol,” which I’m pretty sure I’ve read in its original form at least once, Dickens was a splendid caricaturist. I could picture every facet of the grotesque antagonists and tenacious protagonists of Hard Times. They looked and acted like real people. But it was all on the surface. None of them felt like real people, and I was never convinced that they had internal lives or realistic motivations. I’m a big fan of psychological realism and believable characters, so if I’m going to read a Victorian novel, I’d much rather it be by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy than by Dickens.

The only other Dickens novel I’ve ever taken a crack at was Great Expectations (1861), which was assigned reading in my 9th-grade English class. I never finished it. (Sorry, Ms. Lee-Tino.)

But based on the roughly 25% of the novel that I did read, David Lean’s Great Expectations seems like a pretty solid adaptation. Orphaned boy Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his ill-tempered older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a kind-hearted blacksmith. One night, out on the moors, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who makes him promise to return with food and a file with which to saw through his chains. The terrified Pip keeps his promise, but the authorities arrive on the scene, Magwitch attacks another escapee, and they’re both taken back to prison.

Soon, we meet one of Dickens’s great grotesque characters, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a mentally twisted shut-in who is gleefully brainwashing her beautiful young charge Estella (Jean Simmons) to be the ultimate heartbreaker, and punish men who are foolish enough to fall in love with her. Pip is sent to Miss Havisham’s on a regular basis to improve his manners, but it should go without saying that he ends up receiving a very different kind of education.

All of this is very well done, and beautifully filmed — especially the scenes at night on the moors. The problem for me came after about 40 minutes, when several years pass and Anthony Wager is replaced by John Mills — as the adult version of Pip — for the rest of the picture. Although Pip has only supposed to have aged a few years (from boyhood to manhood), Mills was 38 years old, and the effect is jarring. He’s perfectly handsome, but he just doesn’t look like a young man starting out in the world. The other major actor to change is Estella, which is even more jarring. The gorgeous 17 year-old Jean Simmons is replaced by the 29 year-old Valerie Hobson, who is far less charming than Simmons and looks nothing like her.

Great Expectations premiered in the United Kingdom on December 26, 1946, and opened in the United States during the spring of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards, it was nominated for best picture, David Lean was nominated for best director, and the film was nominated for best adapted screenplay. It won two awards, one for best black and white cinematography and one for best black and white art direction.

I enjoyed it, but the change of actors in midstream and the general Dickensian nonsense of the plot kept me at arm’s length. Great Expectations is beloved by a great many people, however, so if it sounds as if it’s up your alley, by all means check it out.