Kind Hearts And Coronets (Robert Hamer 1949) – review of cinema / Blu-ray re-release
Another Ealing masterpiece is re-released in select cinemas today, and out on Blu-ray in a couple of weeks – just like The Lavender Hill Mob earlier this summer. The Kind Hearts And Coronets disc features a hyper-enthusiastic commentary from some impressive fanboys: director Terence Davies, critic Peter Bradshaw and Alec Guinness’ son Matthew.
Kind Hearts And Coronets
(Robert Hamer, GB, 1949)
Still Ealing’s sharpest, most lethal comedy – so much so you almost wish that today’s criminals had the taste and manners to match Louis Mazzini
Last week, Clapham Junction burned under the assault of lawless looters greedy for consumer goods to fuel their sense of entitlement for a better place in society. In Kind Hearts And Coronets, the death of an estranged member of the gentry – hit by a tram at Clapham Junction – sets her son off on an altogether higher class of subversion, crime and social climbing. The only thing that’s changed, really, is the exquisite literary poise that English criminals once had.
Kind Hearts And Coronets is justly regarded as the jewel in Ealing Studios’ crown, which is saying something when you consider the quality of its output in the 1940s and 1950s. The reason is twofold. Firstly, that it is braver, colder and more ambitious in its comedy, as Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) plans to bump off the eight members of the D’Ascoyne family (all played by Alec Guinness) who stand between him and the Dukedom he regards as his birthright. Secondly, that Robert Hamer has the skill to make those qualities seem so beguiling that we’re charmed into siding with a serial killer.
In that gap, it reveals an uncomfortable truth about English society: class matters. Money makes a madman eccentric, ‘nobility’ disguises the most ignoble of impulses… and looters who have neither become feral rats. The film’s most telling line, “these things only become wrong when people know about them,” could have been written about the arrogant crimes of bankers, politicians and newspapers in recent years.
Without its elegant irony, this would be a very harsh film. Indeed, around the same time, Charlie Chaplin starred in and directed the similar Monsieur Verdoux, about a man who murdered his wives to fund a lavish lifestyle. Chaplin’s sense of humour had curdled in the wake of WWII into a sour, misanthropic cry of despair. Hamer’s film, in contrast, has the subtlety to mask its bromide with impeccable visual and verbal style, to the point where the satire’s barbs prick so deep you don’t feel them.
The sheer act of wanting to ascend to the dukedom gradually strips Louis Mazzini of any moral compass: he’s not only a murderer, but an adulterer and – crime of crimes – a snob, taking a sadistic pleasure in his intellectual superiority. In the film’s bleakest joke, Louis becomes more of a D’Ascoyne than any of his victims. They are all drunkards, blaggards, prigs, in-bred to the point where they all look like Alec Guinness. But Louis’ mix of English and Italian blood gives him a caddish sexuality and such refined manners you’d thank him if he tried to kill you. Crucially, he isn’t dull.
This is a world of surfaces and secrets, and Hamer effectively divides the film into two. The soundtrack is near constant, driven by the wry, luxurious flow of cinema’s wittiest voiceover – this could almost work as a radio play. But it takes the visuals to reveal the film’s biggest ironies, made obvious by Dennis Price’s arched eyebrows, and the fact that the voiceover stops whenever Louis kills. It’s as if even Louis can’t lie away his cruelty. When he celebrates one death with a rhyming couplet, the humour is almost a defence mechanism to hide his guilt.
Price, needless to say, is priceless – one of the best performances in British comedy. And yet he’s been upstaged over the years because Alec Guinness gives arguably the best multiple performance in any film, full stop. Playing both sexes and all ages, Guinness never succumbs to camp or crudity. Instead, modulated changes in rhythm and posture, tempo and tone create convincing individuals – but, being forged from the narrow D’Ascoyne mold – not too individual.
The leads provide is a dual of acting styles – the showman versus the chameleon – that is beautiful to watch, and matched by the women. Valerie Hobson is elegant and poised and lovely, and then there’s Joan Greenwood, husky and sultry and sexier than any woman in Britain in 1949. Between them, the four main actors deliver something close to a roadmap of British archetypes, from which Hamer gleefully plots the downfall of every one.