Thursday, January 6, 2011

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — Murder by numbers, 1, 2 ... 8

Well, it finally happened.

I've held back this long despite multitudinous temptations dangled before me (I'm looking at you, @ebertchicago). Somehow I've managed to avoid late-night fan-spamming @KevinSpacey. And I can resist, so far, RT'ing the mellifluous 140-character ardor of @stephenfry.

But I suppose it was inevitable: I've been inspired to rewatch an old favorite ... by a tweet.

Yes, I looked upon the face of Twitter, and lo! there was @pattonoswalt. Which is a cool thing because I like Patton Oswalt. A lot. His new book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, should arrive at my door any minute now [::leaves office, loops around Kai who asks "treat?", opens front door, closes front door, returns to office::] but it hasn't yet. Crap.

He's funny, he's smart, and he knows how to pair up those two things like red on Twizzlers. His geek culture backstory tracks pretty close to my own. (Oh yes, heh.) I've referenced him already in my post on The Man in the White Suit, wherein I marvel at his ability to make an offhand joke about the Alec Guinness Ealing comedies. So, yeah, I think we'd watch movies quite well together.

The tweet in question, which he typed during a Burbank outbound flight somewhere between [My 100 favorite movie moments (so far), courtesy] and [Harold and Kumar Go to Hanging Rock #sinisterfilms], was this:

Damn you, Oswalt, and the KFC Famous Bowl you rode in on! I had real work to do here, but now Kind Hearts and Coronets was stuck in my head like a favorite Tom Waits song, or the aroma of 7:00 a.m. at Krispy Kreme wafting up from my movie room downstairs.

We have Apple TV now (did I mention that before? I hooked up Apple TV last week and, oh my, do I love living in the future of Clarke's Third Law), so I can watch Kind Hearts and Coronets and any number of movies via wifi and iTunes on the big screen, under the wrap-around speakers, a fact that fills me with merry boggle.

But I had the Criterion edition DVD right there on the second shelf down, so I slid the disc into the player all paleo-pre-2010 style. It's been years since I last watched it, which is just too long.

So hey, thanks, Patton. (Call me.)


It was Voltaire, probably, who said that if Alec Guinness did not exist it would be necessary for Ealing Studios to invent him. Guinness' career-making streak in such cracking good London-based Ealing comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers began in grand fashion with 1949's elegant and cold-hearted Kind Hearts and Coronets. As a black comedy, what it does for the Edwardian England of George Bernard Shaw is what Dr. Strangelove did for the Cold War.

While playing eight members of an aristocratic family targeted for murder, Guinness apportioned his performance with more than just trying on silly wigs and makeup. No matter which member of the rarefied D'Ascoyne gene pool he played — the bank president, the doddery old parson, window-smashing suffragette Lady Agatha, a general who scoops his spoon into an IED in his caviar, foppish Young Henry, and so on — Guinness gave even the walk-ons a memorable turn.

Furthermore, a lesser performer (meaning just about anyone) would have larded up the roles into blowhard grotesqueries. As proper for a dry, wry comedy of manners and murders that's "droll" and "brittle" rather than merely "funny," there's nothing ostentatious or look-at-me! about Guinness' multiple D'Ascoynes. (Thus any comparison with Eddie Murphy and the Klumps ends before it begins.) Although today Kind Hearts and Coronets is remembered for his virtuoso showcase, Guinness himself appears to understand that he is not, after all, the film's lead.

That's Dennis Price, who more than holds his own as the most genteel and cordial of murderers. ("It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.") See the original poster art up there? Notice that  Guinness' name appears last after Price, Valerie Hobson, and Joan Greenwood, with only vague visual clues about his now-famous eightfold tour de force. 

The film opens on His Grace the tenth Duke of Chalfont (Price) penning his memoirs in prison, whiling away his final hours before his hanging. The narrative then unfolds in flashback. Until recently the current duke was, in fact, just a commoner, Louis Mazzini. Before his birth, the haughty family disowned his mother, a D'Ascoyne, for marrying an Italian opera singer, thus denying both mother and son of their heritage and birthright. After his mother dies in near poverty and is refused burial in the ancestral vault, young Louis vows to avenge her and claim the dukedom for himself via a thorough pruning of the privileged and elitist family tree. (TCM clip)

By nature every inch the English gentleman, Louis is adept at "impersonating a man of sterling character" and ingratiating himself to the heirs ahead of him (each played by Guinness). He understands that, among other "discreet requirements of twentieth century homicide," revenge is a dish best served with a quality port.

Louis' insouciant callousness gives Kind Hearts its coolly amoral humor. Lady Agatha floats high above London in a hot-air balloon to rain down Women's Rights pamphlets; Louis punctures her balloon and quips, "I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square." As he kills his way up the peerage, we become co-conspirators amused by such nonchalant doings-in, not to mention the sarcasm aimed at the haute-bourgeoisie in all its inbred snobberies and caste privilege.

Meanwhile, two women attract his affections.

The more marriageable is Edith D'Ascoyne (Hobson), the rigidly prim yet appealingly regal widow of one of his victims (Guinness as silly-ass Young Henry, an amateur photographer and secret imbiber). She's a right proper prig, beautiful but exuding the sexual warmth of a marble birdbath, the sort of role that could too easily be played to "frigid" or "riding crop up the ass" stereotypes. Hobson, though, quite handily makes Edith sympathetic and likable, and not just because you ache to touch her cheekbones to discover what a frictionless surface feels like. What's more, her diction would have Henry Higgins bowing down before her. In a movie saturated with impeccable elocution, Edith could enunciate local prohibition ordinances around a mouthful of poor people.

An example of the film's understated, deadpan tone comes when Louis kills Edith's husband by exploding the potting shed where Henry keeps his darkroom and illicit hootch. We aren't there up close when the shed and Henry go kablooey! Instead we're cozy with Louis and Edith sharing tea in the garden. There's a muffled whoomph! and, up from behind the hedge, a delicately rising billow of smoke. Louis notices, Edith doesn't, and neither the camera nor Louis flinches as they carry on their mundane little conversation.

The other woman is the sultry beauty who rejected him for being a nobody in their younger days: Joan Greenwood's sensual, butterscotch-voiced Sibella. (The only English actress of that generation sexier than Joan Greenwood was Joan Greenwood speaking. Joan Greenwood as a "talk dirty to me" phone sex worker is a Funny or Die video waiting to happen.) Instead of marrying Louis she upped her social ante with a moneyed dullard who bored her even at the altar. Nonetheless, even while Sibella is married to lackluster Lionel, and he's betrothed to Edith, they maintain a clandestine friends-with-benefits relationship. When a pivotal lip-lock cues the fade to black, and the scene returns with Louis' voice-over, "Time had brought me revenge on Lionel," there's no doubt that the couple did a good deal more than just think of England.

Friends with b., as Bertie Wooster might put it.
During Louis' trial for the one murder he did not commit, and while his deferential executioner (Miles Malleson, marvelous) readies the silken noose, Sibella reveals that she alone is Louis' equal in self-interested conniving. (It's a turn that reminded me of Glenne Headly's in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.) The resulting fillip in the final scene was too much for America's skittish Production Code, which demanded that the U.S. version end with a wholesome yawn rather than a cheerfully nasty smirk.

Director Robert Hamer (who co-wrote with John Dighton) didn't exhibit the fully cinematic visual talents of his Ealing colleague Alexander Mackendrick. But as a talented craftsman neither did he get in the way of the film's sophisticated charms. In our tiresome era of older films "re-imagined" with abrasive overkill, where would his finely tuned work keeping Kind Hearts low-key and straight-faced go? It's hard to imagine any new version with a cast half this good, or a cast that doesn't lean into each performance until it falls over, or doesn't add blinking exclamation points to the script's flinty one-liners (a script that assumes a certain level of literacy in the audience to boot).

Something I'd not noticed before: Just before Louis poisons the old duffer Parson by dosing his dram of wine, Guinness as the Parson says to Louis, "The port is with you." I swear it sounds like he's saying, you know, that other thing Guinness said once.

By the way, click through to the impressively compulsive Clothes on Film > Kind Hearts and Coronets: Decadent Dennis Price for the assessment that "Kind Hearts and Coronets is a tour de force of bespoke Edwardian tailoring."
"Unlike with modern period films, I can detect almost no obvious violations of Edwardian dress codes – with one exception, when Mazzini wears a frock coat with silk faced lapels to the funeral of one his victims. For funerals, frock coats should be self faced. But that is the only transgression, and a subtle one at that."
There's the clincher for the pub Trivia Night contest.

On the British Film Institute's current list of best British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets ranks number 6. In 2000, readers of the U.K.'s Total Film magazine voted Kind Hearts and Coronets the 25th greatest comedy film to date. In 2004 the magazine named it the 7th greatest British film. Total Film also calls it "a reminder that, once upon a time, British cinema could match anything that came out of Hollywood." Like a voodoo curse, saying those words aloud could result in some Hollywood exec green-lighting a modern-day remake.

No surprise, then, that in 2000 word leaked out about a remake in development, with Will Smith in the Price role and Robin Williams reminding us how great Guinness was. With memories of 2004's dental-drill remake of The Ladykillers in mind, it's a relief to search online and see little evidence that Kind Hearts and Coronets' Mrs. Doubtfire treatment ever left the "let's do lunch" stage. For once, let's leave perfection alone.

A word about Criterion's two-disc DVD edition while we're here. It's the way to go if you're aiming for the full-on movie buff exposure.

This restored transfer from a 35mm composite fine-grain master yields a flawless print. The clean black-and-white image is sharper and brighter than Anchor Bay's previous disc, with improved black tones and grayscale. The DD 1.0 audio track is clean, but it's a bit harsh or muddy in spots (presumably from the original audio source track). In the first scene, turning on the English subtitles revealed that the executioner boasts that even his mentor "never had the privilege of hanging a duke" instead of "never had the privilege of hanging a Jew."

Typically, Criterion's extras are worth the getting all by themselves. Here that means the BBC's 1986 documentary, Made In Ealing: The Story of Ealing Studios (75 mins.), with film clips and interviews with Joan Greenwood, Alexander Mackendrick, and others for a thorough and engaging history of the venerable film factory.

In 1977, the interview-shy Guinness appeared on Michael Parkinson's BBC chat show, and we get that entire 68-minute episode with Sir Alec at his charming best; among his anecdotes is a spooky forewarning encounter with James Dean and Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder days before the American actor's death in the car.

Also here are the Code-appeasing American ending, the original theatrical trailer, a vast click-through gallery of production and publicity photos, and a liner notes booklet with an essay by film critic and scholar Philip Kemp.

Music: My Favorite Things: Coltrane at Newport
Near at hand: New robot from Janna.