IMDB #186 Kind Hearts and Coronets

A rare countdown entry about which I knew absolutely nothing beforehand- I can't say I'd ever even heard the title. Sounds kind of like a tearjerker.

So what a suprise to find 1949's sickly ironic Kind Hearts and Coronets instead. If subverting rigid post-WWII class castes strikes you as hilarious, you won't want to miss this one.

The Key Players:

Robert Hamer was an editor turned director just making his name with Pink String and Sealing Wax, It Always Rains On Sunday, and this film before unfortunately dying of pneumonia at 52.

Gentlemanly star Dennis Price was otherwise well-known in the 60's for playing Jeeves in "The World Of Wooster" tv series, based on the P. G. Wodehouse stories.

And I would reccomend seeing this movie if only to forever change your perception of Alec Guinness- famous for his drama work with David Lean (including an Oscar for The Bridge On The River Kwai), and as Obi-Wan Kenobi, he pulls off a comedic feat in multiple roles few are capable of, and in a subtler way than the Eddie Murphies of the world.

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The Story:

Once there was an aristocratic family called the D'Ascoynes, headed by a Duke. A junior lady of said family eloped with a poor opera singer named Mazzini, and was subsequently osctracized for it.

Decades later, her son Louis Mazzini (Price) still bears a grudge about it- denied a profitable and gentlemanly career, he works at a fabric counter and is rebuffed by his sweetheart, Sibella, who marries a rich businessman instead- though later she starts a secret affair with Louis anyway.

He monitors the D'Ascoyne's from afar- after all if 12 people were to happen to die, he would become the Duke himself- four of them do just that by illness and old age, leaving eight D'Ascoyne's to go (all of whom are played by Guinness). When Louis's mother dies, and the family refuses to allow her in the family crypt, he makes up his mind.

And since the film begins with Louis already a Duke (and writing his memoirs in jail), I don't think it's a spoiler to tell you he knocks off each one, in various inventive ways: pushing them off a waterfall, replacing parraffin in a lamp with gasoline, poisoning wine, firing an arrow through a hot air balloon, a bomb hidden in caviar, and finally shooting the Duke with his own rifle.

That's six- a shipwreck and a stroke finish the job for him, and Louis becomes the Tenth Duke of Chalfont- along the way he even becomes a successful banker (and gets to turn down Sibella's desperate and bankrupt husband for a loan), and is engaged to one of the younger D'Ascoyne's beautiful widow.

But a detective from Scotland yard appears at his corontation! How did he give himself away?

The Artistry:

When you see eight faces appear after Guinness's name in the opening credits, you're primed for sort a screwball affair, but Kind Hearts and Coronets is all refined black comedy, with Sir Alec's restraint in each role adding up to a turn more subtle than even the great Peter Sellers would put in.

The hammiest parts are an old, dotting reverend, and a lone female role a strident suffragette (who has no lines onscreen), and the others run the gamut from stolid military men to a pluckish young photography enthusiast.

I didn't laugh out loud very much during the entire film, but I enjoyed the put on stuffiness of the whole affair- like the name "Ascoyne D'Ascoyne" itself and the way the jailors and executioner are wowed by Price's composure and address him as "your grace."


Allegedly, Evelyn Waugh contributed to the final script, and the big twist is certainly worthy of his work: Louis is arrested for a murder he didn't even commit- Sibella's husband was found dead shortly after Louis refused to bail him out.

The circumstantial evidence and Sibella's cold-hearted testimony lead to a conviction. Sibella visits him and offers to "find" her husbands suicide note if Louis will agree to murder his new wife. He agrees, but no reprieve comes. Sentenced to hang the next day, Louis writes out his memoir, including all six D'Ascoyne murders, for posterity.

At the last moment, of course, word comes through that he is innocent after all, and he's released to find Sibella and his faithful wife waiting for him. Before he can make a choice, however, he remembers his incriminating memoirs, still in his cell!

And here we receive a maddeningly inconclusive "THE END." Ah, well.

The American cut of the film actually added a scene of it being found before he can retrieve it, since the Hays Code stipulated that crime couldn't be seen to pay.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Slightly lower? I feel like I'm missing a lot of the context on this one, since there aren't any Dukes around for me to resent. But it was fun enough to see once.

The Legacy:

Hrmm. BFI ranks it as the number 6 British film ever- for reference, A Brief Encounter is number 2.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Embedding seems to be disabled on literally every clip, but go here if you wanna see Obi Wan Kenobi in drag.

Leftover Thoughts:

-David Price looks a lot like a young Gene Wilder to me.

-There's one scene where six Alec Guinnesses are all in one place that must've been hell to put together.

-'The Scapegrace of the Century!' according to the trailer. What the heck is a 'scapegrace'?

-The cover of the Criterion DVD is pretty awesome.

Coming Up...

185. Children of Men

184. The Wild Bunch

183. The Killing

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