Thursday, March 12, 2009

Black Comedy, British Style

By Steve Evans
Kind Hearts and Coronets offers a hilarious study in the gentle art of murder committed by (and upon) aristocrats. Criterion delivers a fine DVD package of this influential English comedy.

As dry as the Kalahari Desert, Kind Hearts and Coronets was the first in a series of distinctive, wickedly-black comedies released by Britain’s Ealing Studios starting in 1949. Droll English humor may be an acquired taste (more on that in a moment), but it’s hard to resist a film featuring Sir Alec Guinness in eight roles, each a small wonder of comedic performance. Criterion presents a beautiful high-definition transfer of the restored film with a hefty set of extras in a two-disc set.

A bit of plot…
England. The early 1900s.

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price, The Bad Lord Byron) sits in a prison cell, writing his memoirs on the eve of his execution for murdering almost everyone in his family tree. As he narrates his story, Mazzini’s recollections fade into flashback to the time when his mother, a member of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family, ran off with an Italian tenor. The family disowns their daughter and her son Louis on the day he is born. Years later, when his mother dies penniless, rejected as a family pariah, Louis is livid and vows revenge. He gradually ingratiates himself into the family with sly charm while plotting to claim a dukedom. To reach his objective, Louis mulls how to kill eight of his kin who, like royalty, cling to higher branches on the family tree. Illness claims one of his relations before he can complete one homicide, but Louis soon realizes that similar happy circumstance will not eliminate his other problems. He resolves to murder the remaining heirs himself — in wildly inventive ways so as to avoid detection.

Pruning the family tree to reach the dukedom means finishing off Duke Etherel, the Banker D’Ascoyne, the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne, General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, Admiral Horatio D’Ascoyne, young Henry D’Ascoyne, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne and the improbably named Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (all played to hilariously eccentric perfection by Alec Guinness, who in less than a decade would win an overdue Best Actor Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai).

When Louis is not eagerly occupied in his murderous business, his eyes wander to the married Sibella (Joan Greenwood, Tom Jones), whose worldview is as morally bankrupt as any killer climbing the ladder of social respectability. Sibella develops a vicious agenda of her own after Louis begins a dalliance with Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson, who had played Colin Clive’s wife in Bride of Frankenstein 14 years earlier). Edith is widowed as a result of Louis’ mischief, which creates romantic opportunity (Hobson and Price, above right).

As the disenfranchised and extremely lethal Louis prepares each assassination, the arrogant, cloddish (and possibly inbred) D’Ascoyne clan present themselves as oblivious lambs to the slaughter, practically deserving of their fate.

Historical Context and Significance
Enjoying a hit with Kind Hearts and Coronets, Ealing Studios followed with a string of droll comedies released into the mid-1950s, all starring Guinness: The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit were both released in 1951, followed four years later by The Ladykillers, which the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing, No Country for Old Men) remade in 2004 with dismal results.

It is precisely where the Coens failed with this material (despite the presence of Tom Hanks) that we can understand how Ealing Studios succeeded. This was a particular brand of comedy that played out consistently over a series of films made more than half a century ago. The Coens worked in broad farce, relying on their inimitable stock-in-trade — genuinely bizarre characters — to carry the plot. The Ealing touch was subtle and, more importantly, unique to British culture. Like the studio’s subsequent films, Kind Hearts and Coronets is really an acutely observed take on class warfare and human deceit filtered through the perspective of martini-dry British humor.

Director Robert Hamer employs a light, satirical touch to the dark comedy and his understatement pays off. How this works is almost impervious to description, but here’s my game attempt: Think of Hitchcock at his mostly darkly comic (the first half of Frenzy, most of Psycho), then dress his characters in period costumes and teach them some manners, perhaps a few of the social graces. Sprinkle liberally with the satire of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and especially Barry Lyndon. Voila! We have the Ealing touch. If that’s not enough reckless sub-referencing for one review, then consider this: Here is a film that All About Eve theatre critic Addison DeWitt would enjoy obsessively, roaring with laughter in the twilight hours when he’s not savaging a new play penned by some Philistine.

Every actor in Kind Hearts and Coronets delivers a brilliantly restrained performance in keeping with the social proprieties of the era. In practical terms, this means most of the players come off constipated and seething with frustration — always on the cusp of saying what they really want to say, yet knowing better than to give voice to those thoughts. Viewers who can get into the film at this level will be delighted.

Top-billed Dennis Price starred in light dramas, comedies and unmemorable musicals during the late 1940s and early ’50s. Two decades later, he would enjoy a career revival in an assortment of horror films, several for Hammer Studios and for cult director Jess Franco (Price played a memorable role in Franco’s mind-blowing Venus in Furs). The lovely Valerie Hobson had worked with Guinness three years earlier, playing Estella in David Lean’s definitive adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, Great Expectations (the Criterion edition comes highly recommended).

But this film belongs to Guinness, who disappears into each of his roles like some anonymous chameleon. His eight characters are young, old, male, and female (at left), though they all feature a bemused bourgeois expression at one moment or another. The smug complacency of the D’Ascoyne clan proves lethal, of course. With Guinness in command, each character putters around with the sort of peculiar look a chicken might display at the moment its head is chopped off in preparation for the dinner table.

What’s on the disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya: Criterion delivers a stunning digital transfer in satin shades of black and white, so sharp and clean it could serve as a reference standard for DVDs featuring films made in the 1940s. Video is as perfect as mortals can hope to achieve with current technology. The remastered mono soundtrack is similarly crisp. Criterion’s superb audio restoration techniques have all but eliminated the annoying pops, crackles, and hiss commonly associated with magnetic recordings on films of this age.

Criterion extras are typically comprehensive and on this set include the alternate American ending that U.S. censors (the Hayes Code) imposed on the film to reassure domestic audiences that crime does not go unpunished. Supplements on Disc Two include an interesting BBC Documentary on the History of Ealing Studios (which might be worth watching before the main feature) and a talk-show appearance by Alec Guinness in 1977, the year he played a character named Obi-Wan Kenobi in a little space opera directed by George Lucas.

Caveat lector, baby…
I say again, this is humor tailored for an extremely particular taste. As such, unlike almost every other Criterion title I've had the pleasure to review, I cannot endorse this release as a “blind buy.” For those who are intrigued and have not seen Kind Hearts and Coronets, by all means, do. But rent or borrow it first.

For those familiar with the film or who enjoy other Ealing Studios pictures mentioned here, I urge you to run — do not walk — to the nearest retailer or online DVD peddler of choice. The merely curious would be better served by an experimental rental before trading $40 (suggested retail) for this Criterion title.

Kind Hearts and Coronets delivers sophisticated, sardonic entertainment of the sort that few studios in England (or elsewhere) are willing to take chances with anymore. That alone merits a viewing of this unique comedy.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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