Has there ever been a more charming psychopath than Louis Mazzini? He is intelligent, diplomatic and witty, and able to ingratiate himself into almost any of Edwardian London’s social circles. He also, to his shame, is poor. His mother was cast out by her wealthy family – the D’Ascoynes, dukedom and all – when she married an Italian opera singer; he dies upon first seeing the infant Louis. That could be just a coincidence, or just a gag. Or it could be something to do with the fact that Louis is – if anyone were to describe him in such vulgar terms – evil.
One of the remarkable things about Kind Hearts and Coronets, the classic 1949 black comedy from Ealing Studios, is how easily the audience finds itself on Louis’s side; despite being made in post-war Britain and set in the early 20th century, its own lack of sentiment has preserved the movie as in vinegar; of all the classic Ealings, it remains both the jewel in the crown and the one with the sharpest edge. On his mother’s death, Louis vows to kill everyone standing between himself and the dukedom as revenge for his mother. Well, revenge is all well and nice, but the fact that he will become a Duke is certainly an incentive too.
He is played, brilliantly, by Dennis Price. His performance, along with his sardonic narration, are fundamental to the movie working; the film walks a fine line in keeping us both laughing and complicit enough in Louis’s plans as to want him to succeed. His victims, the eight D’Ascoynes, are all famously played by Alec Guinness, encompassing different generations and, in one case, sexes. Guinness, with the aid of some well-chosen costume and make-up, makes each distinct and memorable, even though some are only around long enough to be crossed off of Mazzini’s family tree. The multiple parts are more than a gimmick; they’re part of the movie’s strategy. Because we know Guinness will reappear, even if the characters don’t, we can slip comfortably into watching Louis ticking them off, one by one.
It is, then, a satire about class, and a sharp one: it says, if you keep all the little, trivial rules of a society, you can break the bigger rules of morality. Morality is a joke in the movie, or something to be invoked for personal gain disguised as altruism. He kills each new Guinness with precision and a certain passion, but for the most part Louis is civil and refined enough to pass easily in polite society, or in black comedy. ‘It is so difficult to make a neat trump of killing people,’ he muses, ’with whom one is not on friendly terms.’
The other significant ingredient is sex, although the movie’s attitude there is equally cynical. Louis lusts after Sibella, and who can blame him? She is played by Ealing regular Joan Greenwood, whose face and voice connote the word ‘coquette.’ She is a tease, using her feminine charm as a tool just as Louis uses his refined taste and manner. She is the perfect counterpart for Louis, almost a type of doppelgänger; first she chooses to marry ‘the most boring man in London’ over Louis because he has more money, then immediately switches allegiance when it looks like Louis may become a duke after all. They are as shallow, self-serving and opportunistic as each another, which is why they belong together; ‘we serve each other right,’ observes Louis.
His lust may attract him to Sibella, but Louis is equally aroused by social advancement and this impulse draws him to Edith d’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), widow of one of his first victims. Compared to Sibella she is uptight and moralistic; the audience doesn’t warm to her like it does to the amoral Sibella. But she would be the safer, more financially-sound option for Louis. As he poisons, drowns and shoots his way through the D’Ascoyne family with one hand, with the other he juggles these two women, coldly moving back and forth between them. He could be thought of as misogynistic, if it weren’t for the fact he has at least as much contempt for men. Indeed, like any good serial killer, Louis’s mother is the only woman – the only person – for whom he has any real loyalty. At the risk of getting all Freudian, is it a coincidence that Sibella looks and sounds like an eroticised version of Louis’s mother?
I realise that someone reading this who does not know the film might think I’ve just described a psychological drama rather than a brilliantly witty comedy; one of the finest Britain has ever produced. That it has endured so long, and remains so funny, is partly because it throws up such questions. The trappings and conventions of upper class society can conceal the basest of impulses, and extreme divisions in wealth can produce uncontrolled avarice. Does the psychopath exploit this environment, or does the environment create the psychopath?
The movie, rightly considered a classic of British cinema, was written and directed by Robert Hamer, who started out as an editor (he edited Jamaica Inn for Hitchcock) before his directorial work at Ealing. He also directed the eerie ‘Haunted Mirror’ section of Ealing’s horror portmanteau film, Dead of Night. Neither he nor Dennis Price had particularly happy lives. Both were homosexual in a time when it was illegal (Price attempted suicide five years after this movie). Both suffered from alcoholism and died in their fifties; David Thomson, in ‘An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film,’ describes Hamer’s career as ‘the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema.’ To what extent these factors shaped their professional lives I cannot say for sure, but they certainly had an influence; nor can I say what, if any, effect they had on this film. Like murder and a working class background, this world kept sexuality concealed; it wasn’t something one discussed in polite society.
A comic masterpiece, as sharp now as it ever was. It has the usual funny, economic storytelling expected from Ealing but, compared to their other films, this one has fangs. FIVE STARS
An excellent, clean transfer; I’ve seen the movie on television and DVD and it has never looked nearly as good. There are small scratches here and there if you look for them, but given its age you couldn’t hope for a clearer print. FOUR AND A HALF STARS
An LPCM 2.0 remaster of the original mono soundtrack. As with the picture, a lot of work seems to have gone into cleaning this up, and those wonderful voices – Price’s, Guinness’s, Greenwood’s – are clear and free of hiss and signs of aging. FOUR STARS
An engaging commentary from film critic Peter Bradshaw, director Terrence Davies (who can barely control his enthusiasm for the picture) and Matthew Guinness, son of Alec. The new Ealing comedy Blu-Rays have favoured looking through the archives for older documentaries rather than making new ones, and this one comes with ‘The British Faces: Dennis Price,’ a 25-minute Channel 4 documentary from 1993. I found it interesting and useful in highlighting this underrated actor, but it is basically just a series of clips with narration (from Richard Todd) filling the gaps and no interviews. There is a brief introduction from director John Landis, a BBC radio essay on the film, an audio interview with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, the original (less ambiguous) American ending, a restoration comparison and the trailer. A good selection, although a new documentary on the making of the film would have been nice. THREE AND A HALF STARS
As with the other Ealing Blu-Rays it’s in newly designed packaging with easy-to-navigate animated menus. THREE AND A HALF STARS
Despite the lack of any new documentaries, this movie probably looks as good in this version as it has since its 1949 release. Combine that with some interesting features and, of course, the greatest movie from Ealing’s run of classics, and it’s just about a must-buy. FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Kind Hearts and Coronets is available now on Blu-Ray.