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Undoubtedly one of the most perfect, brilliant comedies ever, this movie is extremely fun and revels in its dark, clever humour. What can one say about a comedy centred around a dapper, charming, likable, impoverished young English gentleman who is at the same time an utterly remorseless, ever-calculating killer who has no qualms about killing an entire line of relatives who all stand in his path to inherit the family fortune? On top of that, he all the while takes great care in preserving his demeanor and status as a gentleman; all the relatives he must eliminate are brought to life by the genius of Alec Guinness; and there's an executioner who takes pains to show proper respect to his social "superior." The dialogue, indeed pretty much all of the humour, is a shining example of "British humour" at its best. It is subtle, clever, dark, and full of irony and satire. It is pure, brilliant entertainment that doesn't stop. Comedy really can't get much better than this.
Robert Hamer, the director of "Kind Hearts and Coronets", one of the
better comedies to come out of the Ealing studios in the late forties,
created a memorable film that still keeps enchanting, no matter how
many times one has seen it. This is a film that like a vintage wine
gets better with age.
Of course, the right elements were put together in this venture under Mr. Hamer's direction, which is probably the best tribute one could say about the film.
Louis Mazzini, the young man who should have inherited a noble title that is lost as her mother elopes with an Italian tenor and she is disinherited. Louis is determined to regain what's due to him, by whatever means possible. Things go well for him, but he commits a mistake in entering an illicit romance with the calculating Sibella, while at the same time falling in love with the radiant Edith D'Ascoyne, the young widow.
Dennis Price gives a smart account of Louis Mazzini. He is a delight to watch as he keeps scratching off dead relatives from behind the picture frame. Alec Guinness portrays eight D'Ascoynes with an unusual panache. Best of all is Lady Agatha who encounters 'turbulence' while flying in a balloon. Valerie Hobson makes an impression with her Edith and Joan Greenwood is at her best as Sibella.
This is a film to treasure.
This fine film is an example of Ealing at its very best, with a superlative
script and acting of a very high standard. In watching, one is once more all
too sadly aware of the difference in quality between British films of this
era and today; there can't have been in recent times a screenplay as
cleverly comic, economical and incisive as this is. The level of wit is
high, and perfectly suitable for a black comedy such as this. Certain lines
and scenes linger agreeably in the memory; the part where Price, in his
droll narration, slips into verse, is wonderful, as is the "fight" he has
with a lower-class rival; "I'm not going to drawn into a scuffle with you!"
The element of class satire is strong, and while one is shown the lethargy and complacency of the upper classes through the amusing parade of Alec Guinness' characters, Price's corrupt plans are never condemned as such. His character, vigorous and witty, and the clever tool of narration, which in its tone draws in the viewer almost as a confidant. Similarly, but to an even more effective degree than in "Whisky Galore!" (1948) and "The League of Gentlemen" (1959), the viewer is made sympathetic to wrong-doings. The stunningly executed plot and dialogue are finely put across indeed by all of the actors. In the main role, Price refines and defines the cad Mancini perfectly; it really is a great performance, making the character more than memorable. Alec Guinness is great in his 8 roles, making a distinctive actorly mark in all of them. It says a lot that in a career as formidable as Guinness', in TV, film and theatre, his contribution to this film particularly stands out. The two ladies are impeccably played by Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, who contrast quite perfectly; Hobson as rich and strait-laced if certainly beautiful, and Greenwood as the distinctively seductive childhood friend. Price's "juggling" of his two women is wonderfully arch and amusing. The film's ending should be noted as quite ingenious and wonderfully in keeping with the film's overall wit.
In the context even of Ealing, a studio adept at clever comedies, this is an extra-special film. Along with the films of this era of Powell and Pressburger and Carol Reed, this film makes one nostalgic for the days when British film was both distinctively British and universal in its qualities. Wonderfully funny and compelling, this film is one of my few favourites of all and overwhelmingly recommended.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is Ealing comedy at it's pinnacle.
From Alec Guinness we see a masterly display of his acting talent, which we can now look back on with a knowing nod, but in 1949 this was a revelation of a new young talent. From Dennis Price we see the cool, calculated killer, totally focused and utterly charming in every way, and for whom every act of homicide must never, ever, offend the sensitive nature of the English Gentleman. From the supporting cast, we see great performances from Miles Malleson as the hangman, whose determination to address the Duke correctly leads him to practice his bowing, scraping, and 'Your Grace'-ing. Also, there is a great performance from Valerie Hobson as the widowed Edith D'Ascoyne. My favourite role (other than the lead) was Joan Greenwood as Sibella Holland - played in such a sultry, seductive way that I immediately thought of Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming!
This is a superb movie, and one I'd recommend to anyone who wants to truly understand how movies should be made.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The best and most loved of the Ealing Comedies is also the darkest.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably most famous today as "that film in
which Alec Guinness plays eight characters." That said, it is Denis
Price as Louis Mazzini, the charming, urbane serial killer, who really
steals the show.
The film opens in prison, with the Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne, Ninth Duke of Chalfont awaiting execution for one of the few suspicious deaths in the film he wasn't responsible for. On that, his last night, he is completing his memoirs, which act as a framing device for the rest of the film, as well as allowing for a dry, witty narration from Mazzini himself.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is everything modern cinema is not. It is not laugh-out-loud comedy, but a biting wit that often leaves you wondering whether you should be laughing at all. The screenwriter takes seeming delight in the precision of the dialogue, with no unnecessary verbiage. This culminates in an astonishing minimalist performance from Price when he finds himself in the dock of the House of Lords, being tried by his peers.
I suppose you could look at Kind Hearts and Coronets as a form of social commentary. It was made after WWII, after the Beverage reforms, and may reflect a growing restlessness with the stuffiness of the old social order. Certainly, Louis is presented with such sympathy, and his nefarious endeavours told with such gleeful abandon that it is difficult for the audience not to identify with him.
You could regard it as a form of social commentary but, frankly, why bother? It's just glorious fun and, despite a certain English post-war feel, surprisingly modern and anarchic there can be few films, even today, which cast a multiple murderer so firmly in the hero role. And there can be few modern films were the dialogue is so witty, for instance, when excusing his flustered state of mind after his first murder by saying "furthermore, I am not naturally callous".
Of course, everyone talks about Alec Guinness' acting tour de force playing all eight other members of the D'Ascoyne family; from young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne to the hilariously named Elthelred D'Ascoyne (presumable unready for the fate that awaits him), the Eighth Duke of Chalfont. In reality, few of these characters receive more than a footnote in the film. But this is more than made up for by the splendid cast of other leading British actors Denis Price, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood being the notables.
This remains not only my favourite Ealing Comedy, but right up there with Dr Strangelove as one of my favourite comedy films ever made. A wonderful, heart-warming tale of multiple murder. 9½ / 10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Everyone describes this film as a black comedy, but its defining trait is its all-pervasive sense of irony. For starters, whereas DR. STRANGELOVE is a truly black comedy, ending in the destruction of the planet, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS is a moral tale in spite of its theme of cold-blooded revenge.
The "for instances" of irony go on forever in this film. Here are a few: Sibella rejects Louis for being too poor and marries the rich Lionel. Ultimately both she and Lionel turn in despair to the prosperous Louis for support.
As Young D'Ascoyne indifferently deprives Louis of his position at the shop, so Louis coolly goes on to replace Young D'Ascoyne at the bank.
The two members of the D'Ascoyne family who suffer the most emotional distress by Louis's murders (Edith and The Banker) are the two who do the most to give him aid and comfort.
The Reverend Henry, in spite of being a Christian minister, lives in an atmosphere of luxury and pleasure to excess. His very reputation provides an excuse for his poisoning and its resultant cover-up.
The Admiral's sheer inaccessibility protects him from Louis but dooms him all the same. Even a man standing beside him can't get through his thick skull in time to save him. He drowns at the salute with a life preserver bobbing nearby.
The General praises the fame of the Russians for their caviar, forgetting that they were also infamous for their bombs.
Lady Agatha is a crusader for women's rights, but it's her own equality with men as an heir to the Dukedom of Chalfond that marks her for elimination. Her willingness to martyr herself in one cause (women's suffrage and freeborn equality) gives Louis the opportunity to kill her for its exact opposite (patriarchy and inherited rights.)
The cruel and judgmental Duke is caught and sentenced to death in a mantrap set by his own orders, and executed with his own weapon.
Edith marries Louis as a show of faith in his innocence even though he turned her into a widow once before and will do so again if he's hanged.
The eager executioner loses his opportunity to hang a nobleman because his inflated sense of occasion delays the proceedings.
Lastly, Louis escapes the noose only to hang himself seven times over when years of meticulous planning are undone by a moment of forgetfulness.
The more you watch this movie, the more details emerge each time. They don't write scripts this brilliant anymore.
When possible Duke Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price)'s mother dies, she
leaves him a dying wish of being buried in his aristocratic family's
plot who have shunned her all her life, he sets about getting it done.
Imagine his fury and dismay when they say no. He sets about getting
revenge, as well as winning the heart of the mercenary woman he loves
through murdering each of the eight d'Ascoyne family members that stand
between him and a title, riches, and everything that he feels he
Wearing the Ealing black comedy streak on its sleeve and gleefully black, Kind Hearts and Coronets has got to be one of the funniest films about murder to be made. Much of this owes kudos to Alec Guinness' fantastic performance, a true tour-de-force in comedy. He plays all eight of the family members, from the suffragette feminist Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne, to the dull and dim Reverend d'Ascoyne with commendable diversity, changing his tone, stature, facial expressions and accent to play each character as if they were a completely new person. Such a performance could only prepare us for good things, which Guinness then continued to deliver.
That said, Dennis Price takes the lead excellently. As Louis Mazzini d'Ascoyne, he murders, poisons and drowns each of the characters without a sense of remorse that could seem cold and inhumane, but the audience find amusing. We eagerly await his calculation of the death of another, because we know it will have hilarious consequences, and the plot never holds back. However, his dry narration tells a story that hides a sad tinge, as well as delivering sardonic social commentary on post-war Britain, where the gold digging (played with disgusting sugariness by Joan Greenwood) women were everywhere and to some people, rank was all that mattered. This is what makes each of the deaths so comical, giving us a little glee that the snobs are getting what they deserve.
For those who don't want to watch a film for the history lesson, no fear Kind Hearts and Coronets truly shines as a comedy. Even now, the one-liners and biting irony rings and every scene has a joke to laugh at. Under director Robert Hamer's ultra-capable hands, a warm-hearted satire has been crafted. You really can't get much better, or much intelligent than this.
As is the case with most great things, the basic premise of this film is simple. There is, however, an essential darkness at the heart of the movie: the cold blooded and calculating murder of all those who stand between Dennis Price and his possible succession to a title. That this is treated in so light and civilised a way is the triumph of the film. The screenplay and performances complement each other perfectly and are a credit to all those involved. I cannot think of a weak link in the film. The casting was beautifully judged down to the most minor character. The leads are, though, just about perfect. For my money, it is the best of Dennis Price's film work (though his Jeeves on television in the 60's was good, too). Guinness was splendid and well supported by Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood. I have probably seen the film more than a dozen times in the past thirty years. Each time it offers something fresh and new. Quite simply one of the best.
I've seen this gem half a dozen times and look forward to seeing it a few times more. It's a masterpiece of unsentimental, yet genteel, humor, and features performances by some extraordinary actors. Sir Alec Guiness's eight different turns have been much commented on and deserve every superlative they've received. Dennis Price is too little recognized--in the US, at least--for his gifts, as his work here proves. Valerie Hobson is wonderful, and Joyce Greenwood is...I would happily buy a recording of her reading the OED, just to hear that astonishing voice. And, in a small but marvelous role, Miles Malleson is superb. If you have not seen this film, it's readily available. Give yourself a treat. I know that Hollywood seems to have forgotten that there's nothing to be gained by trying to remake a perfect film. If they ever dare to do it with this one--I don't give a damn who is in it, or who directs or writes--don't bother. See the original. None genuine without the Ealing Label.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets" is really an essay in acting from one of Britain's greatest, Sir Alec Guinness, and what better way to remember him than the film which gave him eight roles to play? True, one or two are barely given time to register before Dennis Price dispatches them (Lady Agatha would have been interesting as a fully rounded character), but those which are developed - Henry, the photography enthusiast in particular, are cleverly played and memorable. Price also does well in his role. The ladies - Joan Greenwood and Valerie Hobson - are excellent. The great strength of this film is in its black humour, and of course in its delicious twist ending. I can't bear to think of it remade with a 2000's gloss.
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