Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949) A long time ago in a film world far, far away (before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi), Alec Guinness was considered "the" comic actor during his run of films with Ealing Studios and in the late 40's/50's, but his tour de force may have been the movie in which he didn't even receive top billing—but merely most of the billing!

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a black comedy—the blackest—about the peerage system in England and how the rules can be applied/disavowed at the whim of the "classy." The humor is "veddy" British; there is not a single raised voice in the entire film and the language is the highest (and snootiest) of tone. But that's where the civility ends, as the protagonist is on a mission of revenge and avarice in which he is the architect of multiples of murders in the quest for the title he feels is rightfully his and to which he has been denied.

London is abuzz on the day the film begins, as something altogether unusual is planned at dawn—the hanging, for murder, of an actual Duke, the 10th Duke of Chalfont. It is so unique that the guards have questions about precedence, how to address the soon-to-be-stretched, and the executioner is preparing a verse for the occasion. For his part, the nearly departed is spending his last night doing what any royalty is concerned with—preserving a legacy. Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is penning his memoirs of how he got to this position—on Death Row, the noose being tailored for his neck-size. Part confession, part explanation, part boast, the memoir frames the flash-back sequences that show the unfortunate circumstances that befell Louis that forced him to rise above through low behavior that includes seduction, cuckoldry, murder and ladies' undergarmets.
Not his fault, initially. His mother (Audrey Fildes) became infatuated with an Italian opera singer and (in the opinion of her family) married below her station and was disowned. When her husband dies, she is denied anything to do with the D'Ascoyne family (including the inclusion of her devoted son, Louis, in family matters or business), even though she believes he should be considered in line for dukeitude that goes with the D'Ascoyne name. When she dies, her final wish is to buried in the magnificent grounds around the D'Ascoyne estate.
She will have to stand in line. In order to achieve that, her son has work to do.
The D'Ascoyne family (Alec Guinness—no, really, he plays the entire family) is an entirely disreputable bunch of entitled prigs, their only saving grace (besides being played by Alec Guinness) is that their grace saves them the punishments that discreditable behavior usually affords the un-gentrified. Even if he hadn't been denied his right, Louis would despise them all. Two things provide an incentive besides that of his mother's dying wish—his childhood friend Sibella (the positively glowing Joan Greenwood) refuses his marriage proposal in favor of a richer man's, and an encounter with the son of a D'Ascoyne banker gets him fired from his job in ladies' finery. That particular D'Ascoyne scion is the first to go, in a manner (as Louis will make a habit of) befitting his interests and peccadilloes.
Joan Greenwood (positively glowing)
Louis makes his way up the ladder of peerage on the rungs of dead D'Ascoynes. He also acquires a more suitable job as a clerk for the father of his first victim (who, of necessity, must be a future one). He also begins an indiscreet dalliance with Sibella, who finds that riches do not make a wholly satisfying life (if Louis weren't taking advantage of it, he might learn a lesson there), and a discreet friendship with the widow (Valerie Hobson) of his second victim. The murders are performed bloodlessly and—for the most part—off-camera, laced with, but not limited to, irony. One could imagine, if Louis weren't in such a hurry, that the victims would have incorrigably gone that way, anyway.
The second of many D'Ascoyne funerals (Guinness has a quorum)
Guinness is a wonder here. He gives each D'Ascoyne their own voice and manner, as well as an individual invitation to hate them. And Price manages to make Louis a charming rogue, while betraying that he also has some deep character flaws, beyond his cold-blooded penchant for murder (even if keeping it in the family). Those flaws are only emboldened the closer he gets to his goal. Thereby lies madness. And the film closes with one of those charming Ealing endings that flirts with shocking your sensibilities but has an added twist that satisfies you (in no small part because it leaves it unresolved or, better put, leaves it for the viewer to speculate on what happens after "The End" credit burns in, leaving you judge, jury, and possibly executioner). It's a little thrill that makes the film linger with wickedness long after it's over.

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