What a Carve Up! (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 5 April (6.00 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

The best novel I’ve ever read is What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. It’s a tale about the horrible people who benefited most from Thatcher’s Britain, all condensed into one deliciously odious family, and chronicled by the man who’s writing a book about them. The story parallels, to an extent, a film the writer remembers from his childhood, the broad British comedy What a Carve Up! (or No Place Like Homicide! as it was oddly titled in the USA, though it’s nice to see the exclamation mark was retained) and it’s for that reason I tracked down the DVD some years ago and have watched it numerous times since.

The film has none of the book’s depth and meaning and is, as the novel’s narrator understands, nothing more than a light farce. The fact that the events in the book start to echo those in the film just adds to the dramatic irony, and of course have just as much of a mixed fortune at the end. But just because 1961’s What a Carve Up! is an easy sub-ninety minutes of pseudo-Carry On comedy doesn’t make it bad. It turns out to be very good fun, albeit containing absolutely no substance and played entirely for laughs.

It started life as a crime novel by 1928 British pulp fiction writer, Frank King, called The Ghoul, which was filmed five years later in a Boris Karloff feature. Made as a horror feature, when it came to be redone in 1961 it was converted into a broad comedy starring Sidney James and Kenneth Connor, with even less of the source material’s contents retained.

Connor is Ernie Broughton, a proof reader of mystery paperbacks. He finds out from a mysterious solicitor, Everett Sloane (Donald Pleasence), that his rich uncle has died and he’s to go to Yorkshire in order to be present for the reading of the will, so off he travels with his friend Syd (James) in tow. When he arrives, he finds the entire family assembled, and a grotesque, greedy bunch they are. Dennis Price plays his hard drinking cousin, Guy, and Michael Gwynn the demented Malcolm. Esma Cannon is Aunt Emily, whose mind is stuck in 1914. There’s also Shirley Eaton, who takes on the role of Uncle Gabriel’s former nurse, Linda. Hearing the will reading, they learn that they’ve been left precisely nothing, with the exception of Linda who has bequeathed some medical supplies. And then one of them is found dead.

Ernie is warned by the house butler (Michael Gough) that it’s just the beginning, and sure enough further family members are dispatched over the course of a night during which they’re all trapped in the house during a typically stormy night, all methods of communication down and the village unreachable due to all the nearby bogs. Ernie is suspected, then he isn’t. The house is discovered to be riddled with secret passages. Doubts emerge over whether Gabriel is dead at all, and if he isn’t then one of the characters is working with him to perform the murders.

The actors all play up to the stereotypes they developed over the course of their careers. No one did nervousness for comic effect like Kenneth Connor and he brings all his jumpy, gibbering shtick to the film as the anxious Ernie, getting steadily more frantic throughout. As his more hard-headed friend, James gets the best gags and reins in the lewdness that would define him more in later years. Price plays the posh gentleman that he did so well, and then there’s Shirley Eaton, undeniably lovely as Ernie’s unrequited love interest and in the picture for no better reason than to provide one (an uncredited Adam Faith pops up right at the end as her boyfriend). The film’s ominous overtones are provided by Donald Pleasence, of course, leaving me to wonder if there was ever a time when he didn’t come across in his roles as creepy, middle aged and softly spoken. He’s introduced as he walks up the stairs to Ernie and Syd’s flat, moving very slowly, deliberately and in complete silence, staring straight at the camera, which sets the uneasy tone for his character instantly.

What a Carve Up! is an easy film to enjoy, briskly weaving its story and doing a great job of setting up the house as a place of suspense and mystery, filled with dark recesses and bookshelves that can be opened to reveal a passage to surprise locations. The sinister air it generates is subservient always to the laughs, blowing apart the atmosphere in favour of pratfalls and funny likes, which usually hit the mark.

What a Carve Up!: ***

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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!