Thursday, June 24, 2010

Film #32: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director: Robert Hamer

Initial Release Country: England

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (20 words or fewer - no spoilers):

Ostensible gentleman coolly and hilariously murders his way up the tree of succession to a dukedom.

Uncut Summary (the whole shebang, spoilers included. Fair warning):

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is a quiet, polite young man of a seemingly common, working class family. His English mother was turned out by her wealthy family, the D'Ascoynes, for marrying an Italian opera singer. The two left the D'Ascoyne estate for much more modest settings. Shortly after marriage, Louis is born, overwhelming the new father so much that he dies of joy, leaving Louis and his mother essentially alone.

Over the years, Louis grows up while his mother works in menial jobs and takes on a boarder to pay the bills. All the while, she sends Louis to the best schools. He eventually lands a job selling linens and even works his way up to selling women's underwear! All the while, his mother has been educating him on his family heritage, dispossessed though it may be. By this, Louis learns that he is roughly 12th in line for the Dukedom. Not much to go on, really, but time marches on.

Then, tragedy. Luois's mother suffers a tragic accident. She sends a plea to her estranged family to allow her to be buried on the family estate, but she is coldly refused. Shortly after, she dies. Louis becomes furious at the D'Ascoyne's callousness towards his beloved mother. He vows to kill each and every member of the family until he attains the Dukedom for himself. He begins in a benign enough way: he takes a job for his kindly great uncle D'Ascoyne in a large bank.
A determined Louis (left) ingratiates himself to his first future victim (middle) and his future wife, Edith.

Over the next several years, Louis both climbs the corporate ladder at the bank and exacts his cold revenge. Keeping a tally on a family tree, he "X"-es off any family member who dies. In some cases, he is helped by fate; scarlet fever does in twin infant D'Ascoynes and their mother; a fatal blunder at sea sinks Admiral D'Ascoyne; and so on. In many other cases, however, Louis plays the part of the reaper. By poison, explosives, bow and arrow, drowning, and the gun, he gradually does in every remaining living D'Ascoyne (all eight played by Alec Guinness) between himself and the Dukedom, finally claiming the title as his own.

Then, an ironic twist. Shortly after marrying the beautiful, noble and honorable Edith (Valerie Hobson), whose previous husband was one of Louis' victims, the newly coroneted Duke Louis D'Ascoyne is arrested for a murder that he didn't commit. In truth, he is being framed for the suicide of the husband of his past acquaintance and lover, the sensual and greedy Sibella (Joan Greenwood). Her ploy is to blackmail Louis into killing Edith and marrying her, making her the new duchess.

In the end, Louis agrees to Sibella's terms. She produces a previously-unfound suicide note which exonerates Louis. Upon his release, Louis stands outside of the jail gates to look upon two carriages: his upstanding and forgiving wife, Edith; and his egotistic and avaricious blackmailer, Sibella. Just when Louis seems to be back in the driver's seat, he realizes that he has left his faithful and honest memoirs in the middle of his jail cell, a thorough condemnation written by his own hand.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done before any further research):

A movie like this is one of the main reasons I started this little project: to find brilliant films that were previously unknown to me. Kind Hearts and Coronets is phenomenal comedy.

Only knowing the basic plot and that the film was British, I guessed that it would be black humor, and boy, was I right. It is black. Pitch black. To quote "the cowboy narrator" from The Big Lebowski, "...darker than a steer's tukus on a moonless prairie night." But it's black humor of the highest degree. It's the type of dry, dark, literate humor that I think only the British could pull off.

Louis Mazzoni, the serial murderer out for vengeance and the title that his beloved mother turned her back on, is far from warm, cuddly, or sympathetic. But damn, he sure is entertaining to watch and listen to. This is thanks to an brilliant script worthy of the wittiest Irish and British writers at their finest, as well as Dennis Price's portrayal as the mixed race, avenging devil. He's all manners, sophistication, and sly wit as he condemns and slays English aristocratic society both in word and in deed.

Equally worthy of attention is Alec Giunness as the eight D'Ascoynes. His performances are as incredible as they are hilarious. The eight aristocrats: the kindly banker, the bluff patriarch, the arrogant dandy, the blowhard Colonel, the bombastic Admiral, the ferocious suffragette, the rambling parson, and the emasculated photography enthusiast; each one is given his or her own attitude, bearing, voicing, and even posture. Each one is distinct and distinctly hilarious. Among the many jewels in Guiness' acting crown, this one is worthy of a prime place.

Here's perhaps the most hilarious little sequence of deaths. My favorite is the death of Admiral D'Ascoyne, which comes second in this clip. Sorry, but I can only give the hyperlink to the youtube clip.

A side-note on Alec Guinness. I heard once that one of his great regrets was playing Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. The reason being that, after five decades of stellar acting work on the stage and screen, he would forever after 1977 be known almost exclusively as the bearded and robed mentor to a weenie Luke Skywalker. A true tragedy, in my book.

Back to Kind Hearts and Coronets. My girlfriend and I laughed so hard at this movie that I had to wonder why it isn't better known. My only theory is that U.S. culture has never embraced dark humor, en masse. When I think about our popular culture in terms of TV shows or movies, I find it still mostly composed of yuk-yuk jokes, slapstick gags, and very obvious, sophomoric humor. There have been some strides made lately, with a few successful shows dropping their laugh tracks ("But how will I know when to laugh!?") and relying on (gasp!) the actual script and acting.

The Office has done rather well with this very British approach, though a notable casualty was the incredible show Arrested Development, which Fox bungled horribly. I can only hope that more people begin to see the value in such shows, and realize that taking otherwise serious or dire situations and mixing them with a dash of ridiculous fiction can create storytelling magic. Kind Hearts and Coronets was a key forefather to such things in film, and I highly recommend and fan of dry, off-beat humor give it a watch.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

Some really interesting factoids about this movie out there, most notably in this great little essay by Philip Kemp.

The adaptation process was an interesting one. The original novel, Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman, was a very similar dark satire that subverted the aristocratic system in England. However, some key changes were made by the scriptwriters. Firstly, Horniman's half-Jewish killer was made to be half-Italian, given the political climate of post-WWII England. More importantly, however, were the additions of various methods of assassination (in the book, Rank poisons everyone) and the clever witticisms delivered by Louis Mazzini. Kemp points out how these latter two changes enhanced the story invaluably, and I can't help but agree.

Equally interesting is the life of the film's director and co-scripter, Robert Hamer. Kind Hearts and Coronets was quite a departure for the Ealing production company, which had mostly done lighthearted films of fancy. It was only through many battles and Hamer's sheer genius that the film was made. Hamer was, by all accounts, a true man of film and brilliance, extremely creative and beloved by the actors with whom he worked. He was an alcoholic whose anger at the established, stuffy British culture fueled his creativity. His discontent seemingly only grew over the years and eventually wore him down, leading to his death at a relatively young age, another casualty of artistic constraint.
A still from one of several scenes cut for the American version, for openly admitting to infidelity.

Speaking of limiting creativity, it's interesting to see how the film was changed for the American release, several months after the London premier. Certain scenes between Louis and Sibella were deemed too erotic and suggestive, so they were cut. The scenes that ridiculed the dim-witted parson D'Ascoyne violated movie codes. They were cut. And, the most grievous affront in my mind, the ending was altered. Since the Hayes code forbade the mere suggestion of a criminal getting away with a crime, the American version added ten seconds of footage to show Louis' memoirs actually being found at the end, thus eliminating any chance that the murderous Mazzini would get off scot free. Yet another example of amusing ambiguity crushed by the Hayes code, a la Baby Face.

On a more critical note, most reviews seem to laud Joan Greenwood's performance as the petulant Sibella as outstandingly alluring. While I can't deny her skill, I disliked the character so much that I can't agree with the original TIME magazine review that she's basically the sexiest thing on the planet. I found her a little to elf-like to put her on a level with some of the sultrier vixens of the day, Barbra Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few.

Kind Hearts and Coronets deserves much more modern recognition that I think it receives. Any person who gets hearty laughs from calm, cool, literate humor would do well to track down this 60-year old classic. I'll certainly be watching it with any new viewers that I can find.

That's a wrap. 32 shows down, 73 to go.

Coming Soon: White Heat (1950):

"Top of the world, ma!!" I've seen this one, and remember liking it. I enjoy James Cagney's "ornery little man" persona, and if I remember rightly, he plays a whack-job, mother-loving criminal in this one. Should be fun.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.