Kind Hearts and Coronets
Surely a contender for the best British film ever made, director Robert Hamer elicits never-better work from a fine cast – as splendidly eccentric and malleable as he is across 8 roles, Alec Guinness is perhaps the least of the 3 leads – even though it’s the deliciously barbed, witty, blackly comic screenplay that really does Kind Hearts and Coronets proud. This was the year Ealing enacted a seismic shift in the comedy landscape with the classic trio of this, Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico, but there can be little doubt which of the those takes gold.
This is, ostensibly, a comedy of class, but its themes percolate much deeper than the simply Anglocentric strictures of societal status. While the peerage has significantly less aspirational gusto today – and had less in ’49 than it did in ’09 – it nevertheless represents Britain’s rendition of elite status. Whether that means/meant those occupying its ranks where necessarily guilty of all the transgressions of our commonly defined elite is up for debate. What isn’t is that a whole raft of kit and caboodle invariably came with it, of the land, status and House of Lords variety. By the time PG Wodehouse was writing, the idyllic stagnation of the upper denizens of society was increasingly endangered, and many of his novels, amid the featherweight imbroglios that were a signature of his comedy, documented the difficulties of upkeep that came with stately piles.
Louis: No, in those days, I never had any trouble with then 6th commandment.
In Kind Hearts and Coronets, though, the D’Ascoyne family has no such hardship on the horizon. Why, the 8th duke, Ethelred D’Ascoyne lives in the sumptuous Chalfont Castle, a ringer for Leeds Castle (because it is). The only kinks come from failure to keep the bloodlines pure, hence Louis Mazzini’s mother (Audrey Fildes), youngest daughter of the 7th duke, being cut off for marrying an Italian. While she ensures her son (Dennis Price) is raised scrupulously aware of the necessary family history and genealogy – and not insignificant distance from the title – and Louis himself has the bearing and decorum of one born to the highest stratum of society, he does not, at least per his expression, desire the dukedom for its own sake. Rather, it is his mother’s death, and the duke’s refusal to allow her burial in the family vault that spurs him: “I made an oath that I would revenge the wrongs her family had done her”.
It is thus perhaps the ambivalence of his achievements, as well as his impeccable etiquette, regardless of his personal circumstances, that set Louis apart. He’s impossible to dislike in terms of his comportment. His icy immorality appeals because it is so genteel, so well-mannered and breezy. There is no guilt, no morbidity, and unlike your classic serial killer, he takes no relish in the act, simply in overcoming the obstacle at that time.
Simon Heffer’s analysis of the film references the changes made to the source material, Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, and suggests changing the character from half-Jewish to half-Italian was to avoid charges of anti-Semitism (this in itself is interesting, as we have one who is commonly conspiratorially of a race ascribed to running the world attempting to join the group commonly viewed as running the country). Heffer comments the “ruthless using of people (notably women) and his greedy pursuit of position all seem to conform to the stereotype that the anti-Semite has of the Jew“. Yet I see little “greedy pursuit of position” in Louis; it is simply something that must be done (obviously, he enjoys the luxuries of rank and status, but that isn’t his motivation).
A piece on the film in The History of Movies made a distinction between the two protagonists’ quests, whereby “in the novel this involves a lot of Nietzschean attitudinising on the part of the self-styled superman hero. In the film it is all distilled into an exquisitely subversive comedy of manners, decorated with a constant sparkle of wit such as Wilde himself would not have disowned”.
Louis: Has it ever occurred to you, Sibella, that we serve each other right, you and I?
I suggested at the outset that Guinness might be the least of the leads, which isn’t to denigrate his superlative performances so much as to stress that those performances gobble up almost all the (critics’) attention, when the heart of the picture is Price and Joan Greenwood as Sibella. I say heart, but it’s the attraction of the heartless for each other, equally capable of machinations for their own gain. Sibella is, if anything, even more ruthless, however, yet not quite so capable.
Price and Greenwood are a perfect match. He’d never land such a gift of a lead role again, and indeed would be typically found in supporting turns by the middle of the following decade (most of his leads were in now-largely-forgotten crime films, and his personal life was fraught, to say the least). Greenwood’s extraordinary husky voice precedes her (in Barbarella, especially), but she too never had a role again quite as indelible as this one (memorable as she was in various films subsequently, from The Importance of Being Earnest to Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones).
Louis: He seemed a very pleasant fellow, and I regretted that our acquaintance must be so short.
The History of the Movies said of Guinness’ multitasking, “the most remarkable thing about it is that it is virtually unnoticeable”. And it’s true. The actor’s Ealing work is some of his most sheerly enjoyable, even if it has been rather eclipsed in kudos by some of his later roles (Lean ones, most notably). Each of his D’Ascoynes is distinct and deft in its shorthand construction, somewhere between caricature and cartoon but with more feeling than, say, Sellers tended to bring.
Louis: I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to Earth in Berkley Square.
His Young Henry (the photographer) is even rather likeable, albeit the depiction of the upper classes is one devoid of any envy (Time Out’s Geoff Andrew called it “a brilliantly cynical film without a hint of middle-class guilt or bitterness”). Lady Agatha, part of a montage of murders/mishaps, is a most amusing embodiment of the drag tradition, but the vignette of women’s suffrage (an indulgence of the privileged as embodied in her) is most defined by the lyrical manner by which Louis documents her demise (above). The broadest comes with dozy Reverend Lord Henry (of whom Louis observes “The d’Ascoynes certainly appeared to have accorded with the tradition of the landed gentry and sent the fool of the family into the Church”). And the least redeemable, Ethelred, is saved for last, offed with a shotgun to the face from an unblinking Louis.
Indeed, the picture’s real love affair is less with class, per se, than the delight in language that some might say comes from the heights of rank and privilege. Hamer – like Price, he battled with alcohol – declared his objectives for the picture as “Firstly, in that of making a film not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language. Secondly, that of using this English language … in a more varied and, to me, more interesting way than I had previously had the chance of doing in a film. Thirdly, that of making a picture which paid no regard whatever to established, although not practised, moral convention”.
The latter would lead to alterations for the US market and its Hayes Code. But the second point was picked up by The History of the Movies, first published in 1982, which noted “it allows such weight to the spoken word that it has often been thought of as literary and uncinematic. And yet, at this distance of time from its first appearance in 1949, it stands out as the least faded, most indubitably alive of all British films of its era”. Indeed, it will only do so more, such has the lustre of language being dulled and sullied in the name of realism or disdain for anything that may, in any way, infer vestiges of class, be that the RP accent or a pleasure in erudition.
Louis: I must admit he exhibits the most extraordinary capacity for middle age that I’ve ever encountered in a young man of twenty-four.
But with regard to that morality, Pauline Kael observed “The film is heartless, and that is the secret of its elegance”. It reserves its disdain for boorish oafs like Lionel (John Penrose) or the prim and proper (Valerie Hobson’s Edith D’Ascoyne: “What a prig she was”), for we observe its ranks through Louis’ eyes (and narration). Louis appreciates the “not very amusing irony” that he should be convicted of a murder he did not, in fact, commit (one that was, in any case, a suicide). And the reprieve, when it comes, is down to Sibella hatching her own arrangements with him (the choice between coaches gives way to more immediate concerns, but it’s between one of his “soulmate”, whom he knows he cannot possibly trust, and someone he will likely tire of eventually anyway, and so would probably end up offing, as Sibella requests).
In the US, the open ending was altered from Louis realising his forgetfulness (doubtless poised to rush back to his cell and grab his memoirs before anyone snooped) to his memoirs being read before he can get to them (also toast were 6 minutes of adulterous innuendo and mockery of Rev Lord Henry, while “nigger” was changed to “sailor” in the rhyme referenced by Loius and Sibella at the end). Obviously, the film is very mild in terms of content, but the great skill of art made in censorious times is that it reaches peaks it would not, had it been enabled to depict abandon, lust, violence and depravity wantonly.
Beyond all this, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a film all about the impermanent and immediate; those in Louis’ way are ephemeral, and perhaps most winningly, the hero too is ephemeral and is perfectly accepting of himself as such. Everything about the infrastructure of class is, after all, shot through with materialism, the paraphernalia of apparel and outward appearance. The system itself has the imprimatur of centuries behind it, but most likely dates back no more than 200 prior to the picture’s setting. We know it’s a façade, that Louis is a façade, but what lies behind both is another façade.
Other cast members include Miles Malleson as an enthusiastic hangman (more commonly found as a daffy clergyman), Hugh Griffith presiding over the trial and a svelte Arthur Lowe as the Tit-Bits reporter in the final scene. Hobson, amusingly, got top billing, but she’s a distant 4th in terms of the main players’ impact.
Kind Hearts and Coronets was, as part of a merry Ealing triumvirate, nominated for Best British Film BAFTA (The Third Man won). It was 6th in the BFI’s 1999 Top 100 British Films but didn’t get even a sniff of the Top 250 Films in its recent woked-up-to-the-eyeballs poll. It was 88= in Time Out’s centenary 100 (1895-1995). It should be in the upper echelons of any such poll, it goes without saying. Sibella may be the “perfect combination of imperfections”, but Kind Hearts and Coronets is equally so when it comes to accomplishments.