"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 23, 2011

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) by Robert Hamer (Film review)

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a delicious 1949 British black comedy from the Ealing Studios directed by Robert Hamer. It is different from other Ealing products in being ironic and witty rather than complacent and cozy. The film can even be called amoral as it roots for a calculating serial killer who seems to be getting away scot-free. The title is a reference to a poem by Tennyson:
"Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."
Dennis Price plays a penniless young man, Louis Mazzini, ninth in line to inherit the D'Ascoyne dukedom, who systematically sets about murdering the eight who stand between him and his title. By "chopping down the family tree" he wants to revenge his mother who was rejected by the aristocratic family for marrying an opera singer. "The eight" - among whom are a banker, a clergyman, an amateur photographer, a suffragette, a general and the duke himself - are all played brilliantly by Alec Guinness.

Price is impeccable as aristocratic murderer: genteel and well-spoken. He systematically moves up the ladder from draper's assistant to partner in a bank, while eliminating all the heirs that stand between him and the title of Duke. The killings are done in a most enjoyable way. Instead of the eternal selfsame gunshot, we have murder by poison, by explosives, by cutting loose the victim's boat so that it is swept over a waterfall, and by shooting an arrow in a hot air balloon, to name a few. The victim in the boat was secretly spending a weekend with his mistress, and Louis observes: "I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death." Price, the murderer, is so sympathetic that we find ourselves wholly on his side.

Well, Price/Louis indeed succeeds in becoming Duke, but at the start of the film we find him in prison... his youth friend Sybilla (played languorously and petulantly by Joan Greenwood) has tripped him up: because Louis was too poor, she married a common friend, Lionel, but soon became Louis' mistress. But she gets jealous when Louis tries to marry his way upward into the family tree with Edith D'Ascoyne. She therefore frames Louis for the death of Lionel (in reality a suicide) and that is how the so successful murderer ends up in prison after all... ironically for the only murder he didn't commit!

Louis has received the death sentence and expects to be hanged the next morning, so he now sits in his prison cell writing his memoirs. That is how we see the film, as a large flashback with extensive voice-overs by Louis (who said voice-overs are no good? They work to perfection in this film!). Happily, at the last moment Sybilla relents so that the verdict is reversed. Louis is released and finds both Sybilla and Edith waiting for him outside the prison gates. Just as he stands hesitating in whose carriage to ride, he remembers something terrible: he has left his memoirs, a virtual confession, on the table of his cell... will he get away again? We can only guess, because this is where the film ends.

This is a wonderful film, with great English humor, understated, dry and detached. The dialogues are sparkling, the English used in this film is lively and varied.

The film was also clearly made when Britain still was a strict class society. It is a sustained attack on that type of society, on conventional morals and on the institute of the family. There are no deeper layers besides that, but its humorous atttitude will definitely put you in a good mood!
This film is available from Criterion.