by Frank Olson
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark comedy that is equally erudite and nasty. Angry and class conscious as only a British film can be, the film’s humor comes from the way that its emotions are barely suppressed by its regal, stiff upper lip refinement. Like Charlie Chaplin’s contemporaneous Monsieur Verdoux, Kind Hearts elides most of the actual violence of its gentlemanly killer anti-hero in a way that suggests that politely efficient murder is more vicious than brute force. The audience is invited to share in the protagonist’s lust for vengeance but also made to reckon with the consequences of his actions. Our hero may be wittier than his victims, but the film never lets us forget that we're rooting for a murderer whose attitude is often as snobbishly callous as those of his upper-class victims.
May 26 & 27
Director: Robert Hamer
Producers: Michael Balcon
Writers: Robert Hamer, John Dighton, Roy Horniman (novel)
Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe
Editor: Peter Tanner
Music: Ernest Irving
Cast: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton, John Penrose
Premiere: June 21, 1949 – London
US Theatrical Release: June 14, 1950
US Distributor: Eagle-Lion Films
Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is introduced in an Edwardian prison cell awaiting capital punishment. He seems awfully calm for someone who is meant to be hung in a matter of hours, and has been spending his final moments writing a memoir of the events leading up to his current predicament. Most of the film is a flashback illustrating the details of this memoir, and showing how Mazzini’s entire life from birth had been leading up to a series of murders.
Louis' mother (Audrey Fildes) was disowned by her aristocratic D'Ascoyne clan for marrying an Italian opera singer (also played by Price, with a ridiculous fake mustache) considered beneath her social class. The singer dies during Louis’ birth, leaving Louis and his mother penniless. When Louis becomes a young man his mother asks her estranged family for financial assistance in starting his career, but the D’Ascoynes refuse to acknowledge his right to a piece of their fortune. With no money to repair her broken glasses, Louis’ mother is fatally injured in a traffic accident. When her final wish, to be buried in the D’Ascoyne graveyard, is denied, Louis vows to avenge her by eliminating the family members who stand in the way between him and dukedom.
One of the defining characteristics of Kind Hearts is the unique casting of the odious D’Ascoyne family. Louis' eight targets are all played by Alec Guinness, and viewers who are primarily familiar with his stoic work as Obi-Wan Kenobi will be surprised by his comedic range. Guinness appears as a rude socialite who pays dearly for getting Louis fired from his job as a draper’s assistant; a kindly amateur photographer with a secret fondness for alcohol; an elderly, blabbermouth reverend; a pompous suffragette; a naval Admiral obsessed with military protocol even during times of peace; a bald General who won’t stop sharing his war stories; an old banker; and a cocky hunter who makes unfair use of man traps while seeking his prey. While the film gets a lot of comedic mileage out of the fact that all of these men (and the one suffragette woman) are played by the same actor, and some of the performances are broader than others, Guinness’ work here is thankfully miles away from the crude sketch comedy figures that Eddie Murphy and Mike Meyers have used in their multiple roles in the Nutty Professor and Austin Powers films. Even the several D’Ascoyne’s who only make brief appearances feel distinct from one another. Director Robert Hamer wisely stays away from gimmicky trick shots of the family members appearing in too many scenes together, restricting this practice to one funeral scene in which most of them show up to either snore through the reverend’s ceremony or scold each other for doing so.
The D’Ascoynes each represent different facets of upper-class entitlement, and the film derives a lot of humor from the way that these characters maintain their regal airs even when facing death. The funniest death scene is not one of Louis’ murders at all, but a boating accident caused by the naval Admiral, who pompously barks incorrect instructions that cause his ship to crash directly into another. As we see the Admiral slowly sink, saluting sternly and armored with various medals, Louis’ narration informs us that the Admiral is the only person from either ship who didn’t escape the accident. Another of the victims is dispatched by explosive caviar as he is in the middle of an extended bragging session.
Not all of the D’Ascoynes are defined entirely as blowhards, and some of the victims with whom the film spends a longer amount of time are even somewhat sympathetic. The hobbyist photographer seems like a perfectly nice man, and the way that he is henpecked by his strictly anti-alcohol wife Edith (Valerie Hobson), forcing him to sneak drinks in his dark room, is sweetly pitiable. Even the murders of a few of the more nasty characters have strings attached. When Louis kills the socialite he does so at a time when an innocent female bystander will also be killed. Though the film’s murders are reportedly somewhat softened from Roy Horniman's loosely adapted source novel, which features the murder of a child, director Robert Hamer never fails to show viewers that Louis is just as snobbish and entitled as his victims. Certainly his choice of lovers—the aforementioned Edith, whom he is responsible for widowing, and his manipulative childhood friend Sibella (Joan Greenwood)—reflect poorly on his character.
Ealing Studios lavished Kind Hearts with production values befitting the aristocratic family at its center. Though unmistakably a comedy, in look and feel the film has more in common with The Magnificent Ambersons than Duck Soup. Still, the success of the film is owed less to the fine black-and-white cinematography of Douglas Slocombe than to the outstanding performances of the small ensemble, and to the wit of the screenplay by Hamer and John Dighton. The film’s often hilarious piss take on nobility is established early on, when Louis announces to the audience the preposterously wordy title of his manuscript (A Brief History of the Events Leading Thereto on the Eve of His Execution by Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini Tenth Duke of Chalfont who ventures to hope that it may not prove uninteresting to those who remain to read it) followed immediately by snoring from one of the onscreen prison guards. That level of insouciant wit is maintained throughout the entire film, climaxing in a series of humorously ironic twists that refuse to let Louis off the hook for his highly entertaining dastardly deeds.