Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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This film offers another dose of Ealing comedy, a bit darker than other Ealing offerings, as well as eight count em! eight doses of the great Alec Guinness.
Historical Background: In the late forties and early fifties, Ealing Studios in England produced a series of marvelous comedies that have since become known simply as the "Ealing comedies." The creation of these movies was certainly timely, given the psychic drain of postwar austerity on the British populace. The principal films in this group are Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in a White Suit (1951), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and The Ladykillers (1955). These comedies helped to define what is now known as the British form of humor. The approach to humor in these films was not, however, all of one style. This being the third Ealing comedy that I've reviewed, it's becoming increasingly evident to me that the various films in this group differ widely in the kinds of humor emphasized. Since people also range widely in their tastes in humor, one film may appeal more to a particular viewer and another film more to another. I very much enjoyed my two previous experiences with the Ealing comedies, but this particular one I found was neither funny nor especially amusing, despite the fact that it is generally regarded as one of the best of the Ealing comedies. You should therefore keep in mind that my take on this film will be somewhat less effusive in its praise than the consensus view. It just wasn't the kind of humor that tickles my funny bone.
Ealing Studios, built in 1931, originally operated as just a sound studio for hire, on a per film basis by independent production groups, but in the late thirties, Michael Balcon was hired away from the British unit of MGM to convert Ealing into a full-fledged production company. As the forties came to a close, Ealing had an impressive array of talent in key positions. The corps of screenwriters included William Rose and T.E.B. Clarke and the team of directors consisted mainly of Henry Cornelius, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, and Alexander Mackendrick. Kind Hearts and Coronets was directed by Robert Hamer, who also co-scripted the film with John Dighton.
Robert Hamer was born on March 31st, 1911, in Kidderminster, England and died in 1963. He graduated from Cambridge and then took a job as a clapper boy. After a year, he moved up to film editor. He worked as an associate producer in 1943 and debuted as a director with one episode of the multi-director Dead of Night (1945). His first important outing as solo-director came two years later, with It Always Rains on Sunday. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is considered his best film. His subsequent work was increasingly uneven as Hamer began to suffer from alcoholism.
The Story: The tale is told mainly in flashback. Young Louis Mazzzini (Dennis Price), wearing an expensive-looking silk robe, sits quietly writing in his rather plush jail cell on the eve of his scheduled execution. He is exceptionally calm and in good humor, for a man with only a few hours to live. As he writes, we learn by flashback (and voiceover narrative by Louis) how he came to be where he is.
We learn that Louis's mother, Louisa (Audrey Fildes), had been cast out by her family, the D'Ascoynes, after marrying "badly" to a penniless touring Italian opera tenor. When Louis was still just an infant, his father keeled over, leaving the boy and his mother in relative poverty. Louisa had been forced to slave away at all sorts of menial tasks, but she never let Louis forget that he had been born into an aristocratic family, pointing out to him on the genealogy chart how he was twelfth in line to inherit the title and the estate. When his mother died from exhaustion, Louis decided to avenge her, setting his sights on the title of Duke D'Ascoynes.
For a while, Louis is content to read the obituaries and the birth notices so that he can scratch off or add names to the list of those ahead of himself in the line of succession. The list dwindles to just eight names by natural attrition. Then Louis decides to take matters into his own hands. His determination is further fired by the indifference of his childhood girlfriend, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), to his professions of love. The rather self-absorbed and deceitful Sibella prefers the well-healed Lionel Holland (John Penrose) or at least his money.
Those ahead of Louis in the line of succession include a snobbish playboy, a photography buff, a parson, a general, an admiral, a suffragette (Lady Agatha), a banker, and the current duke. Alec Guinness ably plays all eight of these D'Ascoynes family obstacles! Louis's first endeavor sends the playboy (and his unfortunate girlfriend) tumbling over a waterfall. Next, the photographer succumbs from ingesting petrol, deftly substituted for the liquor that the man kept hidden in his darkroom, to hide his drinking habit from his proper and pro-temperance wife, Edith (Valerie Hobson). As a side benefit to this second successful murder, Louis decides he'll acquire Edith as well, after allowing her a suitable period of mourning. In the meanwhile, he and Sibella begin an affair, as she discovers that she prefers Lionel's money but Louis's kisses.
Louis easily finishes off The Parson by poisoning his wine, but not before engaging the man in some witty dialog that ably illustrates the pedantic stuffiness of the British upper class. Next Louis sends a container of expensive caviar to The General, complete with embedded plastic explosives. Ka-boom, and he's down to just four. Louis uses his genealogy chart as a kind of checklist, crossing each victim off as they expire. The Admiral manages to do himself in without Louis's aid. He goes down with his ship after precipitating a collision by confusing port with starboard. Lady Agatha, the police-baiting suffragette Louis manages to shoot out of the sky with a bow and arrow, as she is dropping pamphlets from a hot-air balloon.
Between escapades, Louis has made himself upwardly mobile, taking a job with The Banker, who is badly in need of a surrogate son, having lost his own son in one of Louis's earlier capers. Louis gradually ascends from clerk to private secretary and then to partner in the firm. Lionel Holland's fortunes, on the other hand, are sinking. This creates a bit of a problem for Louis because Sibella starts thinking about changing partners. Louis, however, has his eye set on the more respectable Edith.
The Banker has a stroke, by natural causes, so finishing him off seems unnecessary, especially given that he's all but adopted Louis as a son. Targeting the Duke is Louis's toughest challenge, since the Duke is safely tucked away in his castle-like estate. Louis uses the announcement of his engagement to Edith to gain access to the Duke and the estate, and, very soon, a hunting "accident" is duly arranged. The Banker also dies, from the shock of rising to the title, but not before signing over the entire firm to Louis.
Louis now has it all the estate, the business, and Edith. A woman scorned, however, is . . . well, dangerous, and Sibella is not about to be thrown over without a fight. Her counter-conspiracy proves every bit as diabolical as Louis's original one and we soon discover that Louis is on death row not for one or more of the murders he did commit, but for one he did not. From here on out there are twists galore and it would be unfair to give them away or to declare whether Louis retains either head or hand.
Themes: As a spoof, Kind Hearts and Coronets is able to get away with a degree of directness and severity in its social satire that would probably not work well in any more serious medium. The social commentary is aimed decisively at the stuffiness and pretensions of the British aristocracy, just as surely as Louis's arrow found its mark in Lady Agatha's hot air balloon. The temperance movement takes a bit of a hit as well.
Production Values: The script was based on a novel by Roy Horniman and made into a screenplay by Hamer and John Dighton. Since I didn't find this film especially funny myself, I'm going to have to make reference to some of the descriptors used by other reviewers in defining why they found the film jolly fun: macabre amusement, black comedy, dry, irony, satire, biting wit, comic and incisive, brilliant, clever, and glorious. I can certainly see how each of those terms might apply to this film, for those who enjoy it. The humor is indeed black and macabre. The single most repetitive element in the humor is that all of Louis's dastardly deeds are done with the gracious dignity one would expect from a British upper class gentleman. There're no sloppy knives in the back or strangulations of the kind blue-collar types might conceive. The deaths occur in amusing ways, and all the more so because we viewers find ourselves rooting for this mild-mannered killer. The satire, of course, relates to upper class foibles and there's irony in such matters as Louis having to face the scaffold for the wrong murder. These are not, categorically, kinds of humor that I do not appreciate or have not already appreciated in other films. It's just that, for me, the main bit the contrast between upper class manners and the diabolical scheming of a gentlemanly serial killer is a clever enough idea when first introduced, but loses its humor value long before the film reaches its 106-minute duration. Then, secondly, the supposedly witty dialog falls far short of "biting" or "incisive."
Comedies have a special challenge. They're supposed to make you laugh or, at least, provoke amusement and, failing that, it's virtually irrelevant if the film is stellar in other respects. By contrast, if a drama is not especially dramatic for a viewer, the film might entertain the viewer with its great visuals, an awesome soundtrack, or an exceptional performance or two. Nevertheless, Kind Hearts and Coronets has some very strong production values that deserve acknowledgment.
There are two really exceptional performances in this film, as well as some good supporting ones. The work done by Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets rightly made his name world famous. It's an utterly virtuoso performance in which he plays eight different characters. Without knowing it in advance, you might very well not realize that the same actor is playing all of these roles. The make-up contributes some to the differentiation of personas, but Guinness manages to infuse each one with his/her own unique personality, movements, and mannerisms. It's a real tour de force and entertaining in its own right. I've seen Guinness in a number of films, including several that I've reviewed (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in a White Suit, The Ladykillers, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia), but now I've seen him in another eight roles, all in the same film! Peter Sellers would later take up the practice of multiple roles. He did so in several films.
Dennis Price can't match Guinness's versatility, in this film, but his beautifully understated lead performance is nevertheless outstanding. It is Price's performance that carries the film, though it is Guinness who adds the mischievous highlights. Price's performance gave his career a big boost and he went on to roles in such films as I'm All Right Jack (1959), School for Scoundrels (1960), and Victim (1961). Later on, however, he had to settle for roles in second-rate horror films.
Joan Greenwood had the more challenging of the two main female roles, as Sibilla. She was appropriately shrewish. She had later appearances in The Man in a White Suit (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Detective (1954), Tom Jones (1963), and Little Dorrit (1988). The cinematography was adequate for the job and is well served by the DVD transfer. The music for the film was the preexisting type, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Bottom-Line: The Studio Canal DVD version of this film leaves much to be desired. The video transfer is pretty good but the audio track is low quality, which can be problematic for Americans watching a film with thick British accents. The DVD provides no optional subtitles for the hearing impaired or for us poor Americans. There is a dubbed French language tract offered along with the English one. The extras are flimsy, including only a trailer, photo gallery, and filmographies.
For me personally, this film would lie at the low end of three-stars, but in deference to the fact that nearly all other reviewers enjoyed it more than I did, I'll up-grade it to four-stars. Even then, I'll likely be accused of "not getting it" by the self-anointed guardians of correct ratings, but there's really nothing difficult about the humor in this film. One can get it and still not find it effective.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older