Perhaps the finest of all the Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) arrives dusted off and given the polish it rightfully deserves; a 62-year-old film rereleased as a timely reminder of how, given the correct ingredients, black comedies needn’t be bogged down with lewd material to be fun, charming and, most importantly, intelligent.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is all of these and more, and it is somewhat alarming that given the darkness of the plot, it remains an effortlessly graceful, celebrated classic in its own right and is perhaps actor Alec Guinness’ finest hour.
Told almost entirely in flashback, Kind Hearts and Coronets sees Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) narrating, from his prison cell, the story of how he set about bumping off the eight ascending members of the D’Ascoyne family to obtain the Dukedom he felt was rightfully his.
Fueled by the mistreatment of his late mother by said D’Ascoynes, who “condemned her to a life of poverty and slavery in a world with which they had not equipped her to deal” due to the fact that “she married for love instead of for rank or money or land”, Mazzini exacted his devilish plot in ingeniously secrete ways, ridding the family tree of each fallible member in quick succession and rising in the ranks of a family ostensibly none the wiser.
Aided by Mazzini’s coolly detached narration, Kind Hearts and Coronets plays out in an unfussy, knowingly episodic nature as each member eventually meets their maker, and much humour is to be had watching how Mazzini chooses to have them dispatched. Yet the film, directed by Ealing regular Robert Hamer, is rarely silly or as oafish as some of the D’Ascoyne’s appear to be, instead calmly riffing on the revenge-style narrative structure and building to a daunting final moment as Mazzini’s crimes finally catch up with him, a conclusion that leaves the question of whether our slippery protagonist will be able to escape yet another predicament dangling elusively in the air.
As the relentless social climber, Price’s performance has frequently been misinterpreted as unimpressive and somewhat blank, rarely selling the inner torment of a man torn between the love for his newly married childhood sweetheart (Joan Greenwood), his burgeoning relationship with the angelic wife of one of his victims, Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson) and the devotion to his merciless killing spree, but this is only valid given the high caliber of his co-star Alec Guinness who, famously, took on all eight roles of the stately D’Ascoyne tribe.
Quite possibly at the peak of his career, Guinness is remarkable in the role of a lifetime (or eight lifetimes), and successfully loses himself in each and every character, attributing definition by skilfully embodying them with unique and very subtle character traits which make each member significant without being particularly showy.
Much unlike the comedic mimicry of Peter Sellers or the lowest common denominator-filled antics of Eddie Murphy in both the shameful Nutty Professor series and diabolical Norbit, Guinness is tactful with his characterisations, fully convincing as both a female woman’s-rights activist and a lively photographer; an arrogant young heir and a dithering vicar amongst others; a talented feat made more impressive given his relatively young age at the time of filming.
Coupling Guinness’s plethora of fine performances, Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is honed and perfectly composed to add texture to Hamer and John Dighton’s biting, eloquent and slyly pragmatic screenplay, which gives Price’s Mazzini some poetic and memorable one-liners.
It is chiefly to the advantage of Slocombe’s work that this new restoration of Kind Hearts and Coronets, which will also be available on DVD and Blu-ray on 5 September, truly shines, giving his use of murky shadows and the tightly observed relationship between interior and exterior a new lease of life. Scenes shot outside feel warm as opposed to inside, especially within Mazzini’s prison cell, which feel grim and foreboding, graphically matching the Kind Hearts and Coronets’ crooked narrative balance between light and dark; a balance rarely emulated in contemporary attempts of a precarious genre that continuously fail to rise to the heights of this unforgettable Ealing classic.