Monday, February 28, 2011

#37 Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms."

Have I yet mentioned that I love college? I get to take all kinds of very interesting classes on topics I like, whilst avoiding those I don’t. I have access to far more reading material than I could ever have thought possible, the internet connection is faster and a lot more stable than back home, I can access at any time just about any movie I can possibly think of – thereby making the completion of this list all the easier. What’s even cooler is how well working my way through this list is complemented by classes I am taking. A fairly sizeable portion of the movies I have watched and subsequently wrote about on this blog have been watched directly as a result of in class viewings of movies, or as direct recommendation given during lecture. The movie I shall be reviewing today, Kind Hearts and Coronets, was recommended to me in just such a way.

The movie opens to show a man entering a jail. We soon learn that he is a jail warden, and tomorrow he shall execute the first lord in the last couple centuries. The warden enters the cell in which the Lord is being held, where we soon learn he is preoccupied with writing his memoirs. From this, we soon delve into the life story of Louis Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont. He says he is born of an heiress of the D’Ascoynes, an illustrious family which held the title of the Duke of Chalfont. This heiress ended up marrying Mr. Mazzini, who was an opera singer. As a result of the unfavorable match, the D’Ascoynes disinherited the woman, and, with the subsequent death of Mr. Mazzini upon the birth of their son Louis, Mrs. Mazzini was condemned to a life of extreme poverty. Louis is raised an aristocrat by his mother, hopeful that someday the D’Ascoynes would reconcile with her. Eventually Louis grows up and his mother dies. Denied employment, accommodation, or even the right to bury his mother in the family tomb by the D’Ascoynes, Louis curses and reviles his family. Left without a mother and an income, Louis takes up residence with his childhood sweetheart Sibella. When Louis’ advances on Sibella are spurned in favor of a wealthier man, Louis embarks on a grand scheme: to become the Duke of Chalfont by killing every D’Ascoyne between him and the title. Through the course of the rest of the movie, Louis systematically orchestrates the “accidental” deaths of six of the eight D’Ascoynes, with the other two dying without Louis’s aid. In the meantime, Louis manages to secure his own independent success at his employment, whilst become ingratiated to various prominent figures in British aristocracy. He also manages to secure a favorable marriage to Edith D’Ascoynes, the widow of one of the killed D’Ascoynes. Suddenly Louis found the shoe on the other foot as he now held the power and wealth while those who once spurned him – notably Sibella – were mired in poverty and marital issues. Sibella implores Louis to marry her, but, remembering how cruelly she spurned him before, he haughtily refuses. Finally, Louis kills the last D’Ascoyne and achieves the rank for which he had always been searching, but just as he was at the apex of his glory, his dreams come crashing down around him as he finds himself to be the primary suspect in a murder investigation. It appears that Sibella’s husband committed suicide, and she has pinned it on him in a spiteful act of revenge. In spite of mounting an effective defense, he is condemned to death. Just as he is being taken to jail, Louis meets with Sibella, who promises to give him an out, and clear him of all charges if he will marry her. So we return to the present; Louis reveals that he agreed to Sibella’s bargain, but time is nearly up and no word has come. Just as he is about to be hanged, however, his savior arrives as Louis is acquitted of all charges. Louis exits the prison to find both Sibella and his wife Edith waiting for him. The movie ends ambiguously as it turns out that Louis left behind his memoirs and the damning evidence therein, in the jail.

The acting in this movie is simply superb. Dennis Prize, who plays Louis, was excellent. He does a fantastic job portraying the character of Louis, who is arrogant, and haughty, yet also a man of relatively simply and honest desires. I particularly love Prize’s delivery of lines. He’s perfectly flippant, making for an uproariously funny film. Equally good is Joan Greenwood, who plays Sibella. She does an excellent job of portraying a silly and vain girl, while later showing Sibella equally as a vindictive, spiteful, and very clever girl. It’s a natural progression and it doesn’t seem at all odd that she makes this transition. The true show stealer in this movie, however, is the supremely talented Alec Guinness, who plays every D’Ascoyne, including one female. Every single D’Ascoyne role is unique and interesting, and Guinness’s performance for each role is superb.

The directing in this film is quite good. The cinematography is decent, though nothing truly to write home about. The real notable part of this film comes in the writing. The way in which the story is told is excellent; the idea of a flashback is stupendous. The comedy is wickedly funny. I really like that the comedy is subtle; if you aren’t looking for it, you are not going to catch it. The only real problem I had with this movie was the pacing; it tends to drag a bit, but on the whole I don’t think this is so bad.

So why is this film on the list? For a number of reasons. Firstly, the movie is on the list for the superb performances of Alec Guinness. The ability of Guinness to play 8 different roles and to play them all superbly is just phenomenal. Secondly, this film is on the list for its wicked humor. In many ways it is the perfect representation of British humor. What the humor this movie really reminded me of was the play The Importance of Being Ernest. In the same vein, it is a movie which contains many hilarious jokes, and yet it never explicitly tells you that jokes are being made. Finally, this movie is on the list for its controversy. The movie studio which Kind Hearts and Coronets came out of was very conservative, and enforced strict regulations on the sort of themes and messages the movie was allowed to convey. Director Robert Hamer blazed trails in the studio by creating a movie which upended every idea encapsulated the studio. I know it doesn’t seem as though I’ve liked this movie very much, owing to the uncharacteristic short review, but this is owing more to the fact that I’m operating on very little sleep, after having recently finished writing a long paper, and on a very limited time scale, than to any sort of ambivalence to the film. This is unfortunate, as I truly adored this film, but such is life. Anyway great film: watch it if you don’t believe me.

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