Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - #325

It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.

How refreshing it is, in this long stretch of art house classics that I've committed myself to watching, that Kind Hearts and Coronets pops up as a nicely comedic change of pace. Movies as flat out funny as this don't come up in the Criterion Collection as often as the more somber, philosophically rigorous and dramatically tragic offerings, and I appreciate the chance to laugh it up a bit (quite a lot, actually) as I go about my studies. Not to imply that Kind Hearts and Coronets is a lightweight trifle - no, that's not at all the case. The film carries a message of socio-political significance, girded by shrewd psychological insights into the human condition and delivered with impeccable wit and intelligence. But it may take a second or third viewing for all of that to sink in - the first time through, at least for me, was spent simply enjoying the wickedly delightful absurdity of watching a well-mannered sociopath exact murderous revenge on an aristocratic clan who'd done him and his mama wrong at an early age.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably best known for one of three reasons, which I'll list here in descending order:

1) It's the film in which Alec Guinness plays eight different parts, all members of the D'Ascoyne family (six of whom fall victim to foul play, all of whom die before the movie's end.) He does a terrific job, bringing quirky nuances to each character even if they only get to fill a few minutes of screen time.

2) It's the most famous and beloved production of Britain's Ealing Studios - and a helpful reminder for a classic film novice like me to realize that not every movie made in England in the 1940s was produced via J. Arthur Rank (who put the gong at the beginning of his films) or Alexander Korda (who splashed Big Ben across the screen to start his.)

3) It's the review that DVD Beaver directs its readers to if they want to understand the concept of and reasoning behind "pictureboxing." (For the record, as of today I have no problem with pictureboxing since I still watch on a CRT TV and I appreciate getting the full picture on my almost-archaic convex screen... but when the day comes that I finally upgrade to flatscreen -and it'll be soon - then I'll gladly join the ranks of hi-def snobs who deplore this sacrifice of resolution for the sake of an ever-dwindling home audience.)

There's a lot more to the film than those three points, of course. It must be regarded as one of the most successful black comedies ever made, and by black I don't mean Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor. Those are different kinds of black comedies. (But in regard to this film's controversial use of a particular racial slur, I invite you to check out this essay.) What I mean here is sharply focused, ironic, sophisticated humor about potentially offensive subjects and behavior that would be appalling if acted out in real life. The central narrative of Kind Hearts and Coronets could just as easily be framed and presented as a suspense thriller, a grim, nihilistic film noir or even a twisted, exploitive horror flick. Instead, we get a lively comedy, rich in dialog, that probably could have been as successful on stage as it was on screen - except that Alec Guinness would have had too hard a time playing eight roles, fewer people would have seen it, we wouldn't have had a record of the magnificent performances, and we'd all be the worse off because of that.

But still, cinematically speaking, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a rather straightforward production, without much in the way of innovative camera techniques or imaginative compositions to recommend it. The magic is found in the writing and the casting of Dennis Price, first and foremost, as Louis Mazzini, the young man whose fiendish ambition to clear the path to an aristocratic station in life fuels the action. Louis is the son of a British heiress who fell twice as a young woman - first, she fell in love with an Italian tenor and agreed to marry him; second, she fell out of favor with her parents and relatives, the D'Ascoyne family, headed by the Duke of Chalfont, who considered the arrangement "beneath" her and so cut her entirely out of the family fortune and all other relationships. The hardships that this disinheritance inflicted on Louis' family are presented with sardonic flair, the moral flipside of films like Oliver Twist and A Story of Floating Weeds that also deal with disgraced families, or The Lower Depths and Bicycle Thieves, that take a more earnest approach to the disparities between social classes. Kind Hearts and Coronets takes malevolent glee in bringing to light the petty corruptions and hypocrisies that beset us all, whether we are striving to climb the social ladder or doing our best to make sure that the masses are impeded from advancing one rung further than necessary, lest they disrupt our hard-earned comforts and privileges. There are no virtuous poor here, no solidarity of the proletariat, no heroic struggles against the forces of oppression. The social milieu of Kind Hearts and Coronets is a quietly corrosive and exploitive one, despite all its surface level exhibitions of scrupulous propriety and prominent achievements in life.

This venal spirit pretty thoroughly inhabits the film, but it's pulled off so charmingly, with such consummate skill and droll turns of phrase, that we easily lose track of just how heinous Louis' behavior becomes as he finds new ways to knock off his unwitting rivals to the dukedom, all the while ingratiating himself to those toward whom he bears only the illest of will. His murderous episodes progress from almost passively benign (loosening a line that sends a small rowboat carrying his first victims over a waterfall) to whimsical (shooting down a hot air balloon that leads to a crash landing in London's Berkeley Square) and finally, to a cold-blooded shotgun blast, looking his victim right in the eye. And we're sitting there laughing at him the whole time!

Here's a clip in which you can see for yourself a few choice displays of Louis' homicidal knack:

And as far as disordered conduct is concerned, Louis' killing spree only covers roughly half of his symptomatic behavior, because he's also quite manipulative in his relationships with women (I won't dignify them by calling them "romantic.") The subplots involving his philandering with childhood flame Sibella (played by Joan Greenwood, whose voice and facial mannerisms just beguile me) and the widow Edith D'Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson, much better suited to this role than she was as the adult Estella in Great Expectations) are more complicated than I wish to get into here (and are best enjoyed without spoilers anyway.) The actions of the principal players are all quite reprehensible - the games that Sibella and Louis play with each other's affections (and ambitions) doubtlessly stir up in the viewer recollections of past romantic entanglements - and perhaps more recent ones too! - as unfortunate as that must be. But at least this film gives us a chance to find humorous perspective in such circumstances.

Kind Hearts and Coronets has been a staple atop the Best British Films Ever Made lists for several decades now and as I mentioned it on Twitter and did some reading up on the film, I discovered that it holds a pretty dedicated audience, which I completely understand. I count myself as a big admirer too - it's practically flawless at what it sets out to do and I can hardly say enough good things about the ending. Without giving it away, I just love how it leaves the audience dangling, withdrawing from the action and closing down the narrative at precisely the right moment, so much unresolved, just as it should be - sheer comedic perfection! (Well, the original ending, that is. The "American ending" found on the Criterion disc offers a sad example of how "American" can sometimes be synonymous with "dumbed-down, moralistic and spoon fed" in cultural matters.)

But beyond the two hours of amusement (and the nice lingering after-effect of so many great lines that come to mind upon reflection,) there is, as I said above, a deeper level of insight and a sharper critique of the social order that informs Kind Hearts and Coronets. It's quite a subversive film, especially coming from a studio that consciously prided itself as being a champion of solid British values and mores. The accompanying documentary on Ealing Studios provides a lot of background on their films and helped me get a sense of how exceptional Kind Hearts and Coronets is among their works. The sexual frankness and satirical mockery of so many English institutions went further than studio chief Michael Balcon wanted to, but he was unable to tone it down when his creative people insisted on releasing the film uncut. And when it became a big hit, well, that's when Balcon saw the light and proclaimed it "the best film we have made!"

I have to conclude that a big reason that Kind Hearts and Coronets found such a receptive audience upon its release is that it reflected a popular break with the Edwardian ethos that it lampooned. It's significant to note that the era portrayed on screen appears to be the late 1890s or so, the very height of the British Empire. The England of 1949 had gone through a transformation that their forebears of 50 years earlier could scarcely have envisioned or believed if it had been described to them. Two world wars, and especially the one just concluded, cast a dubious light on the pompous certainties and smug presumptions of those bygone days. Kind Hearts and Coronets inserts into that Edwardian era a character whose jaded perception and comfort with his own disillusionment more closely matches that of the contemporary audience. Though the war had turned out basically OK from the British point of view, a lot had been lost, and there was no easy way of settling the score with the perpetrators of so much injustice. A collective craving for revenge had been established, and as people of taste, they were pleased to have it served to them cold, even if only in the form of a delightfully amoral and consequence-free indulgence on the silver screen.

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