When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am) Channel: BBC2 IMDb Link
Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.
Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.
Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.
The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.
Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.
Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.
Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.
And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.
When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm) Channel: BBC2 IMDb Link
There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.
Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.
The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.
On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.
Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!
Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.
James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.
The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.
And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.
Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.
It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.
One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****
It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…
When it’s on: Thursday, 12 March (1.05 pm) Channel: Film4 IMDb Link
Clearly I like Malta because I’ve twice been there on holiday. It’s a fascinating set of islands. For such a tiny place, a pinprick in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been at the hub of civilised history since there was such a thing and it’s stuffed with attractions, from Neolithic temples to walled medieval cities and Baroque cathedrals, dating from the time when it was owned by the Knights of St John. Malta’s record during World War Two is something of a footnote within the grander scheme, but it was a key strategic location. Occupied by the British, it was pivotal in supplying and disrupting the war effort for either side in the North African theatre. As a consequence, it was heavily bombed by the Axis powers, flying night and day bombing raids from Sicily, ahead of a likely invasion that, if successful, would almost certainly have led to victory in Egypt for Rommel and the closing of the Suez Canal to the Allies.
One of the stranger things to visit in Malta are the Lascaris War Rooms. This is the British control centre from which the war effort was conducted. It might have changed a bit in the seven years since I went, but I remember struggling just to find it, the path taking me down, down down, through tunnels and gangplanks as though descending into some netherworld. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing, the city of Valletta far above, a somewhat plain door before me representing the museum entrance. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I entered, but the nondescript whitewashed tunnels and unassuming doors were probably about right for this place, with its grim purpose and teeth gritted lack of decoration. Still, really interesting stuff. I was given a walkman, which related the story of the war rooms and indeed the conflict as a whole whilst I wandered through the control rooms, stared at the enormous Mediterranean wall charts and the ‘battle boards’ upon which they would move pieces representing ships, planes, thousands of lives. I’d recommend it as a change of scenery, a reminder of one of the more crucial yet far less celebrated moments in Malta’s history.
The Lascaris War Rooms, along with Valletta itself, feature strongly in Malta Story. Brian Desmond Hurst was a director from East Belfast who had scored a considerable box office success in Britain with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, in 1951, now routinely considered to be the best version, but his career stretched back to the 1920s, back when he was working for John Ford on Hangman’s Horse. It was Ford who persuaded Desmond Hurst to take the job of directing Malta Story, cannily seeing it as ‘right up your street,’ and so the production moved to Valletta to begin filming. It was the director’s second visit to the island, his first coming in 1915 when he stopped off with his Irish Rifles regiment on their way to a fateful engagement at Gallipoli.
The film focuses principally on the Axis attacks on Malta, the struggle to fight off enemy bombers, the desperate need for supplies to make it through, the toll it takes on the Maltese who shelter from the ceaseless raids, cope with dwindling food supplies and listen to exhortations from Radio Rome on the wireless that beg them to surrender. The latter are represented by Melita Gonzar (Flora Robson), the matriarch who sees first hand the effect all this is having on her family and who lives in a bittersweet relationship with the British, the cause of their suffering. No Britons on Malta, no more war. When her son, who she believes has been captured and imprisoned on Sicily, emerges as a spy working for the enemy, the pain it causes her is excruciating. It’s a great role, wonderfully understated and surprisingly dignified, amidst the bombast of all those scenes depicting bits of the island being blasted. Much of the footage is carefully edited stock from the historical archives, mixed in with shots of the three Spitfires that were loaned to the production flying out in retaliation. It doesn’t matter. The scenes contain their own power. We know all about the London Blitz, but war was hell everywhere, no more so than on embattled Malta. When the island is collectively awarded the George Cross, in recognition of its suffering, it comes across as a curiously half-baked gesture.
These bits, spliced to give the film a documentary film, are Malta Story at its best. Jack Hawkins is on reliable form as the stoical British commanding officer, every decision given heft by the sense of realism over what failure will amount to. Wing Commander Bartlett is played by Anthony Steel, at the height of his fame following The Wooden Horse but nothing like a leading man. Despite that, there’s a touching element to the romantic storyline he shares with Renee Asherson’s operations room worker, like both are thrown together in an effort to find some personal happiness in the thick of the struggle.
The tale is told nominally from the perspective of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness). A photo reconnaissance pilot, used to flying high over the enemy in order to take shots of potential targets, is on his way to Alexandria but finds himself stranded in Malta when the carrier plane transporting him is hit by a bomb. Ross does his work out of Valletta instead and comes across a train carrying glider parts into Sicily, elements proving there will be an imminent attack. Showing himself to be useful, he also comes a Maltese girl, Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Melita’s daughter, and the pair fall in love, though their relationship is played against cultural clashes between the British and the island’s natives, and worries over what they will do when the war is concluded.
Guinness specifically asked to play Ross, asking Desmond Hurst to be allowed to take on a romantic lead due to being ‘fed up with playing funny little men’. Better known on screen as a comedy actor, there’s a reason why he got few parts of this type. The actor’s scenes with Pavlow are strangely uncomfortable, lacking in chemistry and played very stiffly, whereas when he takes to the skies he appears much more at home. Little wonder perhaps, that Ross simply disappears from the film for large parts when there’s all that juicy war footage to focus upon. He should be the heart of the film; instead, he’s its weak link.
When it’s on: Wednesday, 31 December (11.00 pm) Channel: BBC4 IMDb Link
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!