Thursday, March 27, 2008

Target #205: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)

TSPDT placing: #158
Directed by: Robert Hamer
Written by: Roy Horniman (novel), Robert Hamer (screenplay), John Dighton (screenplay)
Starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Though it had been producing films since the 1930s, it wasn't until 1949 that Ealing Studios finally commenced its golden period. In was in this year that they released the first batch of their most entertaining comedies, including Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore! (1949), Henry Cornelius' Passport to Pimlico (1940), Charles Frend's A Run for Your Money (1949) {a little-known gem of which I'm very fond} and, of course, Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which launched Alec Guinness into a successful career with the studio. Easily one of the darkest comedies of its era, Hamer's film was loosely adapted from the novel "Israel Rank," by Roy Horniman – among other changes, the main character was renamed from Israel Rank to Louis Mazzini, to avoid any perceived anti-Semitism so soon after World War Two. The title itself was derived from an 1842 poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which reads, in part: "Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood."

The films of Ealing Studios can often be characterised as good-natured, down-to-earth comedy offerings, light-hearted in tone and always steering towards the attainment of community betterment; characters typically conclude the film having learned a valuable lesson, and the ending is usually most ideal for all concerned. Later films such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and especially The Ladykillers (1955) returned to the murky themes of Hamer's film, but they couldn't avoid reinforcing the age-old adage that "crime doesn't pay," whereas this comedy leaves ample room for the possibility of our killer escaping scot-free {however, for audiences across the Atlantic, the Production Code dictated that this ambiguity be removed}. Likely influenced by Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) – a "comedy of murders" – Hamer unwaveringly filled his film to the brim with dark themes, dry wit and bitter irony, finding a hilariously suave and classy serial killer in actor Dennis Price, whose unflinching murderous plight attains a twisted sense of empathy through the maltreatment of his mother's memory at the hands of the D'Ascoyne family.

I've often remarked that Alec Guinness never plays the same role twice, his character changing unrecognisably from picture to picture. In the case of this film, he virtually changes from scene to scene, portraying all eight heirs to the Dukedom of Chalfont with uproarious charisma and versatility. It helps that most of Guinness' creations, merely targets for the conniving Louis Mazzini, are wholly unlikable or frustratingly senile, though there's certainly a pang of regret when the amiable photography hobbyist is murdered, and the manner in which The Duke is dispatched is shocking in its sheer cold-bloodedness. Perhaps a single complaint is that the murders of Lady Agatha and the General were skipped over much too quickly, and I would have enjoyed a more in-depth examination of the mechanics of the crime. The final act of the film is swathed in a healthy dose of irony, as Mazzini is arrested and charged for the one murder he didn't commit, his fate sealed and then rescued by his jilted mistress, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), who alone guesses the truth about what he has done.

Currently my #2 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
3) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
4) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
5) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)

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