When it’s on: Wednesday, 31 December (11.00 pm)
I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.
1949 was a watershed year for Ealing Studios. After a fine early dip into the waters of comedy with the post-war Hue and Cry, the year heralded an explosion of great work with Whiskey Galore!, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. All three work beautifully. Not only are they very funny films, they’re also consummately British and explore different aspects of life and manners, capturing to sublime effect the mood and spirit of Great Britain in the years following World War Two.
Each film deserves a gushing entry of its own, but my favourite of the golden trio is without doubt Kind Hearts and Coronets, a delicious black comedy about a series of murders. The subject matter is dark indeed; a disinherited young man seeks his fortune, his place as the Duke of Chalfont, by killing all the family members that stand between him and his prestigious position as head of the ennobled family. And yet it’s told with real charm, and the story has such an agreeable lead in the impeccably mannered Dennis Price, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him, his objective and finding oneself cheering on his efforts, hoping he actually achieves his ghoulish dream.
Price, in reality raised in the kind of privileged upbringing that would no doubt have pleased his character, plays Louis Mancini, the son of a lady from the noble D’Ascoyne clan, who eloped with an itinerant opera singer and for her pains ended up in poverty. The family refuses to acknowledge his existence, so Louis has little choice but to take a humble shop assistant’s job. When his mother dies and the D’Ascoynes deny her a place in the family crypt, Louis’s thoughts on his heritage turn to those of vengeance, the germ of an idea to put himself high in the pecking order for the Dukedom. At the same time, he’s friends from childhood with Lionel (John Penrose) and Sibella (Joan Greenwood). It’s clear he adores the latter, and those feelings are returned, but the flighty Sibella does not see the young Louis with slim prospects as suitable for her, so she chooses to marry Lionel as our hero attempts to improve his outlook by removing the obstacles, one by one…
In a casting stroke of genius, the D’Ascoyne family are all played by the same actor – Alec Guinness. Aged 35 at the time of filming, Guinness’s reputation – gained mainly on the stage – was that of someone who looked anonymous and unmemorable, unlike many of his rather striking thespian peers, such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and this was played up to great effect with him donning various wigs and prosthetics to fit himself like a chameleon into the skin of each D’Ascoyne, young and old, male and female. A skilled and flexible performer, Guinness was more than capable of breathing life into all his characters, whether the vain and ignorant Young Ascoyne, the more likeable Young Henry, the doddering Parson, the blustering General. What none of his personae sees coming is the spirit of revenge in the shape of Louis, who finds increasingly imaginative ways of doing away with them. The General meets his demise after an encounter with exploding caviar. The Parson drinks poisoned port. An unfortunate drowning ‘accident’ sees off Young Ascoyne.
It could be grim fare, but it’s actually riotously funny thanks to the gregarious narration from Louis, as he recalls how he made it to the top of the family business. Charismatic and effortlessly pithy, there’s no doubt that what he’s doing is wrong and indeed he’s the first to acknowledge it, yet there’s something entirely winning about Louis’s anti-hero as he goes about his grisly work. Structurally, the story is told in flashback, Louis recounting the events that led to the prison where we first meet him, presumably (though not necessarily) having eventually been caught for the string of D’Ascoyne murders and awaiting the hangman’s noose. Even with death before him, however, there’s no crying or worry. He’s the picture of patrician calm, quoting Doctor Johnson to his gaoler with little sign that he has a care in the world.
Kind Hearts and Coronets was directed by Robert Hamer, already an Ealing veteran with the superior working class drama, It Always Rains on Sunday, and he was also responsible for the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment from Dead of Night, the studio’s quite brilliant portmanteau horror film. Had it not been for the even scarier ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, Hamer’s deeply unsettling tale is the one you would remember, and perhaps it’s the complicated narrative framing Dead of Night that helped make the equally complex Kind Hearts and Coronets so easy to follow. Hamer’s last directorial effort was 1960’s School for Scoundrels, another saga about bad men turning out to be the film’s unlikely heroes though, much like Louis, Ian Carmichael’s morally mixed up Henry Palfrey would no doubt approve of the sympathetic treatment he receives.
Kind Hearts and Coronets: *****
Thanks to everyone who has visited and supported Films on the Box over the Christmas holiday period. Have a Happy New Year and a sensational 2015!