#171 (tie) – Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), dir. Robert Hamer

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder on his mind. Dennis Price stars as a distant heir to a dukedom intent on dispatching all the relatives keeping him from his inheritance in the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.

There’s a certain morbidity to post-World War II cinema. That darkness has frequently manifested itself in the Sight & Sound movies of the late-40s, which traffic in tragedy, brutality, and the twisted morality and shadowy settings of film noir. So perhaps it is all too fitting that director Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — the first post-war comedy on the Sight & Sound list — is black as pitch. The film follows the exploits of Louis Mazzini, a man whose aristocrat mother was unceremoniously ousted from her noble family for marrying an opera singer. Feeling cheated of his birthright and indignant over the treatment of his mother, Louis decides to eliminate as many relatives as necessary to inherit the title of Duke of D’Ascoyne. Not the typical stuff of comedy, but with a wicked playfulness and the benefit of having the great Alec Guinness playing the entirety of the D’Ascoyne clan, Kind Hearts and Coronets finds a way to charm in its cool, delightfully urbane take on murder. (106 min.)

J. – This film is a ton of fun — and I love to be able to say that about a movie so steeped in selfish conniving and death. I think Kind Hearts and Coronets has a number of secret weapons up its sleeve, but their are two elements that are used to fantastically complement each other throughout the course of the film. The first is a positively gleeful sense of immorality — this is a movie that takes so much joy in being vile, which is awesome. However, that could easily get tiresome or run over into cheap farce, but the factor that keeps it all together is the film’s deep sense of propriety and order. Sure, the characters may kill, philander, and double cross — but they’re never going to be so base as to be impolite or overwrought. Louis (played marvelously by Dennis Price) is always so even-keeled and polite in a 19th century sort of way despite his grasping amorality. I think particularly to the wonderful seen when he takes tea in the garden with the wife of one of his victims. Louis has rigged the lantern in the darkroom of Henry D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness) to explode and burn his cousin to death. As he sips his tea we here an ignition pop — Louis perks up for but a second before continuing polite conversation. Everything about the scene is understated, from the reaction to the muffled sound of Henry’s demise, and the end result is deliciously funny. I have a real affinity for dark comedy and comedies of manners, so it is hugely appealing to me that the crueler the film gets, the more refined Louis becomes.

S. – This comedy centres around the premise that to enjoy a high station in society Louis Mazzini was compelled to commit heinous crimes while always keeping up appearances. A feat he manages with wit and panache throughout. Even in his jail cell while awaiting his death sentence, absurdly for a murder that he did not commit, His Grace demands and receives special treatment due to that hard-won title. The undercurrent is a very harsh statement about British society, although that criticism never touches the surface of this fun and polished romp.

Dennis Price is the perfect sociopath, not raising a sweat while dispatching the many obstacles in his way let alone tweaking his conscience. The desirable Sibella (Joan Greenwood) is the soul of wickedness and proves to be Louis’ equal at mixing outward propriety with threadbare ethics. Forget Rhett and Scarlett, these two are dynamite. So very bad, yet so delightful. Of course there is also the pretty and pious Edith (Valerie Hobson) that Louis pursues as the crown of his achievement but she is definitely the Ashley of this threesome. Although it does not have the visual impact of Gone With the Wind, in my opinion Kind Hearts and Coronets is a far superior film spun out of characters that shine for their villainy.

Kind Hearts and Coronets 3

Dennis Price excels in the role of Louis Mazzini. In this scene he calmly smokes a cigarette while explaining to his victim how he is going to shoot him in the face. The disconnect between Louis’ actions and his demeanor are a major source of comedy and are played up expertly by Price.

J. – Ah, will Gone With the Wind ever cease to be our punching bag? (Spoiler: no)

As much as I may prize the tone of the film, Kind Hearts and Coronets really does thrive off of the performance of Dennis Price. He is so marvelously evil, but never once breaks from his character as a gentleman. Even the marvelous scene where he tells the Duke (Alec Guinness) that he is about to kill him is one that is underplayed, with Price calmly telling his grandfather exactly what he is about to do to and why. What is so marvelous about Price’s performance is that he can be so debonair in every scene but there is still so much bile and hurt in his character that seeps through into the performance even though he is so considerate and measured — that’s a fantastically difficult trick to pull off. He also gives a fantastic performance as the narrator. Narration is not a devise I typically go for, but it is used very effectively in Kind Hearts and Coronets, giving a strangely Dickensian zing to the proceedings and expertly complementing the action on screen. Price gives a solid, sardonic performance in the wonderful Powell & Pressburger joint A Canterbury Tale (1944) but I don’t think that earlier film gave me any indication that he was this good.

I find Joan Greenwood’s performance, however, much less compelling, at least for the most part. There is something so artificial about her delivery — and by that I mean beyond the aspects of Sibella that are meant to be artificial and false. But I give her every credit in the world for that final scene of hers in the jail as she subtly blackmails the condemned Louis into an arrangement to save his life. She kills in the scene, all of her coiled duplicity from the rest of the film coming to perfect fruition. So I’m all too happy to forgive those earlier moments when I found her languid coyness a bit hard to bear (I wonder if it’s the accent that grates me so).

But even though this film is totally dominated by Price, the big gimmick Kind Hearts and Coronets is Alec Guinness playing all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family. I have to ask, S., what did you think of Mr. Guinness’ work in this movie?

Kind Hearts and Coronets 2

The dueling between Louis and Sibella is one of the many delightful aspects of the film, with the two characters both so awesomely despicable. Their repartee is also surprisingly scandalous for a movie of the period, which fits perfectly with the generally mischievous tone of the film.

S. – I thought it was a cute idea to have the many eccentric D’Ascoynes portrayed by a single actor and any way you can squeeze in some more Alec G seems like a smart move. He was certainly able to bring a different flavour to all the members of the family tree, in particular that smarmy young D’Ascoyne really made my skin crawl. Strange as it sounds, somehow I still feel as though they didn’t make the most of him. As the very sober banker there was certainly a lot of screen time, in which we were given the most fair and reasonable version of a D’Ascoyne, albeit one somewhat too attached to his worthless offspring. And the not so bright, sherry-loving Parson was a delight. I did feel a little short-changed on many of the other vignettes though, Lady Agatha for example was quite the hell raiser but amounted to little more than a wacky cameo, unfortunately her larger than life antics made her an easy target for Louis to dispatch. For an actor of such talent and given such a large complement of the cast to play he seemed very much in the background.

Alec Guinness has the opportunity to play eight roles -- the entirety of the D'Ascoyne clan. He does an admirable job disappearing into each role, but the film somehow doesn't feel like it gives him enough to do. (Click to embiggen)

Alec Guinness has the opportunity to play eight roles — the entirety of the D’Ascoyne clan. He does an admirable job disappearing into each role, but the film somehow doesn’t feel like it gives him enough to do. (Click to embiggen)

J. – I agree that Guinness does seem strangely wasted in his multiple roles. This is not to knock what he does here. Guinness is one of my favorite actors, and I consider his performance in Bridge on the River Kwai to be one of the greatest in any film (after perhaps only Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane and Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc). But I’m not sure I like what the film chooses to do with him. Guinness is good fun in the movie, but of the eight D’Ascoynes he plays, the five with the most screen time are also the five most normal and sedate. The Parson is really the only true eccentric of the five, and even he is very subdued in his creaky senility. (That said, I love Guinness’ portrayal of the Duke — all stern disregard.) But the three D’Ascoynes who pass away in a short montage are by far the most ridiculous, and it is a shame that Guinness wasn’t in a position to really tear into those roles in a more extensive fashion. I have a suspicion, however, that my disappointment is really driven my long-standing love of Dr. Strangelove, with Peter Sellers playing three very different — and very funny — characters in Kubrick’s nuclear farce.

But there’s no place in Kind Hearts and Coronets for a character like Dr. Strangelove. We’ve already spoken of the refinement of the protagonist, no matter how despicable he becomes. But in truth that refinement applies to the film as a whole. There are very few outright jokes in this film, and outside of the montage I mentioned above there are really no scenes that one could describe as outrageous or even silly. This film takes a very measured pace, and even though it is hyper-verbal in its humor, it doesn’t feature any of the fast banter or witty fencing that one expects from a comedy. No, this is a movie that takes things slow, and actually draws its humor from that slowness and deliberateness. I wouldn’t call Kind Hearts and Coronets to be a gut buster of film, but it never seeks guffaws and in doing so it somehow stands out all the more as an excellent comedy.

S. – This comedy has a different feel from the others we have seen on the list so far. There is very little physical humour and no clowning around for laughs. Instead the viewer is allowed in on the secret from the beginning and treated as a co-conspirator from there on out. Many times the fun is contained in a mere pause or glance from Louis that communicates the awkwardness of his duplicitous situation. While this did not set-up belly laughs, there was a steady stream of amusing moments and reactions allowed to emerge from the absurd operating under a veneer of good manners. It is a clever comedy that rides on the deft performance of Price. There is the sophistication of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise but with a subtlety that feels new. I enjoyed Kind Hearts and Coronets immensely for taking me along with the crazy scheme rather than relying on tried and true tropes or wild exaggeration to have the audience laugh on cue.

Related yammers:
#117 – Trouble in Paradise (1932), dir. Ernst Lubitsch
#117 – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, and also starring Dennis Price
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