by Allan Fish
(UK 1949 106m) DVD1/2
How happy could I be with either, were t’other, dear charmer, away
p Michael Balcon, Michael Relph d Robert Hamer w Robert Hamer, John Dighton novel “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman ph Douglas Slocombe ed Peter Tanner md Ernest Irving m “Il Mio Tesoro” from “Don Giovanni” & various small pieces from “Così fan Tutte” by W.A.Mozart art William Kellner cos Anthony Mendleson
Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (younger duke/the banker/Young Ascoyne/Henry/Admiral Lord Horatio/the general/Lady Agatha/the parson), Valerie Hobson (Edith d’Ascoyne), Joan Greenwood (Sibella Hallwood-Holland), John Penrose (Lionel Holland), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Elliott, the hangman), Clive Morton (The colonel), Arthur Lowe (Reporter), Hugh Griffith (Judge),
Let me be honest here, Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably the least visual film of the entire selection. It’s rather a film whose deserved masterpiece status rests on its acting and its deliciously dark and cynical script. Oh, and the fact that it’s the least Ealing like film they ever made and, consequently, the best. Many films make you empathise with the hero, for whatever reason; maybe because you want to look as cool as them, or because you fancy the panties off the leading actress. What’s remarkable about this is that you’d be wishing yourself to be a mass murderer, for the hero kills six of his relatives in this film, and plans the death of two others. So, much as though frolicking with the unique Joan Greenwood would have been great, let’s take a reality check here; Louis Mazzini is a swine who, though perhaps originally justifiably full of hate, is thoroughly deserving to get caught and punished. But did the fellow have to be so stupid as to leave his memoirs in his cell. Forget morality, people, check your scruples at the door.
Louis Mazzini is the son of a woman who has married against her ducal family’s wishes and has been reduced to poverty. When this poverty inadvertently leads to her being fatally run over, Louis is full of anger and makes a vow at her graveside. Yet it is only when his object d’amour, Sibella Halwood (who he has grown up with and lived in the family home of since his mother’s death), teases him about his distant line of inheritance to a dukedom that he decides to take action. He systematically takes it on himself to rid himself of all the members of the d’Ascoyne family who stand in his way.
Alec Guinness drew much of the praise for his performances as eight of the d’Ascoyne family, and indeed it is a tour-de-force. But his is only one of four memorable performances in the film; Valerie Hobson is superb as the stiff, gentle but ultimately perhaps dull Edith and Joan Greenwood is just sex on her petite Edwardian legs as genteel nymphomaniac Sibella, who finds her husband the “dullest man in Europe” and wears hats that would look extravagant at Ascot on Ladies Day. Yet topping it all is Price in a performance of such cynical quiet suavity as to make you envious of him. He may not be naturally callous, as he himself says, but he learns very quickly. One particularly recalls his kissing and assumedly sleeping with Sibella the night before her wedding, then turning to her husband at the reception and declaring “you’re a very lucky man, Lionel. Take my word for it.” Yet surely his defining moment has to be his rendition of ‘Daniel cast into the lion’s den’ in Matabele, a deliciously choleric series of near belching noises punctuated by the odd “Daniel“, watched in nut-cracking horror by Guinness’ ancient senile cleric (who seemed old enough to be Moore Marriott’s grandfather). Then there’s that wonderful deep focus shot scene where young Ascoyne is blown up in his dark room in the background of Edith’s boring afternoon tea prattle and Price’s comment after he commits his first murder – “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably, during the weekend, undergone a fate worse than death“, referring to sleeping with his boring relative. Others may have other favourite moments, for it’s a film full of such priceless gems, too often credited simply to Alec Guinness. As Alan Stanbrook said, “Kind Hearts is not a king-size Guinness but a rare old port which deserves to be sipped and relished. And like port it matures with age…”