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Tag Archives: Dennis Price

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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Dear Murderer (May 29, 1947)

Arthur Crabtree’s Dear Murderer is a well-acted, competently directed British murder story that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own moving parts.

Successful businessman Lee Warren (Eric Portman) has just returned to England after a five-month assignment in New York, and he has murder on his mind. And not just any murder … the perfect murder.

But as any fan of murder mysteries knows, truly perfect murder schemes are rarely the subject of books and films, since the killer invariably does something to trip himself up.

Lee Warren alludes to this when he tells his victim, “The perfect murder is the one that nobody every hears about, because nobody thinks it is murder.”

Warren’s victim is a handsome young lawyer named Richard Fenton (Dennis Price), and Warren wants to kill him because he found out he was making love to his wife, Vivien, while Warren was living in New York.

After convincing Fenton to write a letter breaking it off with Vivien, a letter which Warren partially dictates, Warren “accidentally” spills a drink on the letter. Then, after Fenton begins to rewrite the letter on a dry piece of paper, Warren stops him midway through by pulling a gun on him and tying his wrists behind his back with the silk cord of his dressing gown. Without the second half of the letter, it reads exactly like a suicide note.

Warren informs Fenton that he intends to commit “the perfect murder,” and he’ll be convinced not to go through with it only if Fenton can find a flaw in his plan.

He tells Fenton that he’s going to give him a little rap on the head, just enough to knock him out, then gas him with a pillowcase and tube contraption he’s come up with that will go over Fenton’s head.

He’ll attach the tube to the gas jet in the living room, then move Fenton’s unconscious body into the kitchen and stick his head in the oven, where he will lie until he dies. Since no man can be forced to stick his head in an oven until he dies of gas inhalation without marks of violence, it’ll look like suicide, and the note will clinch it with the authorities.

Fenton tells Warren that Vivien isn’t just interested in him, she’s interested in many men, and Warren can’t kill them all. Warren hits him in the face and then draws back, telling Fenton he’s just being clever and trying to get him to lose his temper. What about an alibi? Warren says he doesn’t need one. He arrived home by plane that night, ate dinner, and went home alone. What about motive? As far as the rest of the world knows, Warren doesn’t even know Fenton exists. Is that all? Fenton sputters, but can’t think of anything else.

“You’re a bit of a failure as a lawyer. I’m glad my life didn’t depend on your arguments,” Warren says, then proceeds to do his cruel work.

By the 30-minute mark, I realized the film must have been based on a play. My moment of realization came when the handsome Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) and Warren’s wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) show up in Fenton’s flat thinking they are alone, and discuss their affair. Jimmy tells Vivien that he wishes she would divorce her husband and marry him. Warren hides around the corner, listening in horror as he realizes that he should have taken Fenton’s admonishment about Vivien’s other lovers more seriously.

These bizarre clown-car meetings of several characters in one place continue for the remainder of the film. I’m sure they made perfect sense in the original stage play by St. John Legh Clowes, but plays have different rules than films do, and the screenplay of Dear Murderer, by Muriel & Sydney Box with Peter Rogers, does nothing to alleviate the staginess of the proceedings.

The first half hour is the best part of the film. It’s clever, sardonic, and involving. By the end of the film, however, the contrivances have stacked up higher than a 4,000-deck house of cards. I didn’t hate Dear Murderer, and could imagine it working very well as a campy stage production full of clever twists and funny dialogue, but as a film, it was too hidebound and stodgy to keep me involved throughout the running time. (It also doesn’t help that Portman and Jack Warner, who plays Inspector Penbury, the police detective investigating the case, look so much alike that I was frequently confused when a new scene opened.)

Dear Murderer compares unfavorably with another British film I saw that starred Eric Portman, Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder (1946), in which Portman plays a more sinister and psychopathic murderer than the one he plays in Dear Murderer. Wanted for Murder was also based on a play, but I never suspected it while watching it. The direction was creative and the settings in the film were dark, creepy, and often out of doors.

Hungry Hill (Jan. 7, 1947)

Daphne Du Maurier’s 1943 historical novel Hungry Hill covers a period of 100 years (1820 to 1920) in the lives of five generations of two feuding Irish families. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1947 film adaptation narrows the scope of the story to three generations and a roughly 50-year timespan, but it’s still a lot to take in over the course of just 100 minutes. If you’re a fan of romantic yet gloomy historical melodramas, Hungry Hill is a filling dish. And if you’re not, Hungry Hill might leave you feeling stuffed and queasy.

Margaret Lockwood gets top billing (and the most time onscreen) as Fanny Rosa, a beautiful and headstrong young woman who marries into the wealthy Brodrick family, who live in a castle called “Clonmere” in County Cork. The patriarch of the clan, John Brodrick (Cecil Parker), has several children, John (Dennis Price), Henry (Michael Denison), and Jane (Jean Simmons). (Honestly, there are a lot of characters in Hungry Hill, and he might have had more children than those three, but they’re the only ones I was able to get a handle on.)

The patriarch of the Donovan clan, old Morty Donovan (Arthur Sinclair), violently objects to John Brodrick’s plans to mine for copper in Hungry Hill, and curses Brodrick and his entire family. (Hungry Hill is located in the beautiful Caha Mountains, which I’ve hiked, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t more location footage — most of the film takes place in drafty old rooms and the bowels of the Brodrick copper mine.)

While the copper mine ends up providing plenty of employment for the Donovan clan and other roustabouts, tensions are always simmering. A labor riot leads to the death of one young man, and a visit of reconciliation leads to a deadly typhoid infection.

Hungry Hill follows a familiar three-generation rise-and-fall story arc. By the time Margaret Lockwood’s hair is brushed through with gray and her face is lined with age makeup, it should come as no surprise to anyone that her handsome son, Johnnie Brodrick (Dermot Walsh), is drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, loving and leaving the ladies, and frittering away his family’s fortune. The scenes between Johnnie and his mother are well-played and affecting, but by that point in the movie I was starting to lose interest in the dismal goings-on.

One thing I can recommend unequivocally is the casting, which is excellent. Not only does Hungry Hill feature the cream of the crop of up-and-coming British actors, but the Brodrick men really do all look like members of the same family, and the Donovans resemble one another, too. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight.

Hurst himself clearly didn’t hold this film in the highest regard. In a letter to John Ford dated April 9, 1951, in which he sang the praises of Siobhan McKenna, who played Kate Donovan in Hungry Hill (Ford was interested in casting her in his film The Quiet Man), Hurst wrote, “There must be a copy of a rather indifferent film I made of Daphne du Maurier’s even more indifferent story ‘Hungry Hill.’ You could get hold of this through Eagle-Lion, but don’t inflict the whole of the picture on yourself. Just see about the last four reels, because she doesn’t come in till then.”