Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

Criterion Sunday 225: Tunes of Glory (1960)

I don’t think the liner notes are wrong to suggest this 1960 film is an underrated classic: like a lot of British movies of the period — ones which rely on solid acting and their carefully scripted themes — it sort of gets lost amongst the various European New Wave films which were making a splash with formal innovations and a looser street-bound sense of place. Instead this is largely based in the single setting, a barracks in Edinburgh, where two military officers with contrasting management styles face off against one another: the rowdy and boisterous (and flame-haired Scot) played by Alec Guinness, and his replacement, the controlled authoritarian Englishman played by John Mills. It becomes a film about the reverberations of class throughout the power hierarchies of British life, not to mention — at a more quotidian level — what it’s like to work under a bad manager. Both leads do excellent acting work, and there’s a coolness to the colour cinematography that’s also striking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer James Kennaway (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Susannah York, John Fraser; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 154: The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017.

Criterion Sunday 32: Oliver Twist (1948)

After Great Expectations of a few years earlier (reviewed last week), comes another David Lean adaptation from the works of Charles Dickens and it is far superior. Guy Green outdoes his earlier cinematographic efforts with vast inky pools of blackness from which characters emerge into a shadowy, grey lost world, immured deep in England’s memory, as orphan Oliver is born at a workhouse to a mysterious woman who dies in childbirth, and inducted into a life of poverty and hard grind. It all resolves itself neatly by the end, but it’s given vivacity by the acting, particularly Robert Newton as a frantic Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh as his moll girlfriend, and of course the young John Howard Davies as Oliver. Nowadays the film is most known for Alec Guinness’s creepy comedic turn as Fagin, though I feel Criterion’s liner notes suggesting it’s not anti-semitic because he’s never called a Jew within the film is somewhat disingenuous: it’s clearly a caricature and a fairly unflattering one at that. Still, Fagin is a fairly small element within the whole film, which remains impressive most of all for its beautifully filmed vision of a world that must have felt within reach in 1948 given the ravages of the era in which it was made.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those liner notes, there’s just a trailer and English subtitles, so this is a bare bones package.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean and Stanley Haynes (based on the novel by Charles Dickens); Cinematographer Guy Green; Starring John Howard Davies, Kay Walsh, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

Criterion Sunday 31: Great Expectations (1946)

A handsomely-mounted prestige production from a famous literary work, there’s probably nothing particularly revolutionary in David Lean’s Dickens adaptation, but it’s still a pleasant two hours’ viewing. The central role of Pip is played by John Mills, an actor already far too old to convince as a twenty-something, though he captures a certain wide-eyed naïveté. Much better is Alec Guinness as his fey living companion Herbert. Valerie Hobson rounds out the main cast as the stand-offish object of Pip’s affections, Estella, tutored by the fusty Victorian spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). There’s some good use of contrast and shadows in the black-and-white cinematography (though this was pushed further in his second Dickens film of Oliver Twist).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan (based on the novel by Charles Dickens); Cinematographer Guy Green; Starring John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 April 2015.