20 November 2005

100 films: Kind Hearts and Coronets

starring: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, and Alec Guinness
written by: Robert Hamer & John Dighton, from the novel by Roy Horniman
directed by: Robert Hamer
NR, 106 min, 1949, United Kingdom

In an act of revenge against the family that disowned his mother, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) conspires to eliminate the twelve members of the D'Ascoyn clan that stand between him and Dukedom. But as he approaches his goal, a jealous lover frames him for the murder of her husband--the one crime he didn't commit.

British comedian Eddie Izzard has a bit about his country's films that revolves around the common trait of the films being, well, a bit dry. This is no exception. Mazzini manages to murder six people in cold blood, seduce a married woman, shoot the current Duke in the face, come to blows with his lover's drunk husband, blow up a shed, and shoot down a hot air balloon--all without providing the audience with the least bit of entertainment[1]. Is it really possible to watch a man go on an elaborate killing spree and be bored to death? Yes. Oh, but Mazzini is convicted of killing a man who committed suicide. What delicious irony! Bollocks.

A film is in trouble when it relies on irony as a means of resolution. It's like the comedian who relies on puns. Sure it works a couple of times, and you may get a few laughs out of it, but in the end it grows quickly tiresome and the audience moves on. He's convicted of a murder he didn't commit, but can it really be that hard to get yourself acquited of something like that? There's no evidence against him to speak of, just the testimony of a jealous lover and a vague sense of impropriety, but that's hardly sufficent to hang a Duke. At least Price does us the honour of a proper acting performance.

It pales, though, in comparison to the job by Alec Guinness, who plays the entire D'Ascoyn family, giving them all unique looks and mannerisms. He sets the standard for later turns by Peter Sellers and Mike Myers[2], and is clearly the high point of the whole production. In fact, it seems as if the film exists solely to allow Guinness to play all these different parts, and if that's the case, it's odd that he isn't in the film more. Most of his scenes are rather short. If you combine all his roles he probably isn't in the film as much as Price, despite being the best thing on screen.

[1] It should be noted that this type of comedy was popular in Britain in the forties and fifties. It is meant to be droll and civilized and perfectly mannered. It does this well, but it still does not make the film itself enjoyable. It is, perhaps, a victim of the passage of time.

[2] The comedian, not the serial killer.