The Horse's Mouth Review
It’s interesting to notice that Eureka are releasing The Horse’s Mouth outside of their Masters of Cinema strand despite a Criterion Collection handling in the US. The reason perhaps owes less to Eureka’s ability to mount a worthwhile edition – after all the presentation here is fine if extras-free – than it does the man behind the camera. The Masters of Cinema series is distinctly director-based, and eclectic with it (from Keisuke Kinoshita to Buster Keaton), but Ronald Neame doesn’t quite fit the bill. He may have had another of his efforts earning Criterion inclusion, namely 1980’s interesting but middling Hopscotch, yet Neame is too often anonymous and run-of-the-mill to be ranked amongst the greats. No-one would ever consider Escape from Zahrain or Meteor as anything other than low-brow ‘entertainment’, whilst the likes of I Could Go On Singing, The Poseidon Adventure or Tunes of Glory are interesting for other reasons, occasionally for ones outside of Neame’s control. And so it is with The Horse’s Mouth, a film noteworthy not for its director, but for its writer-star Alec Guinness.
Released the year that Guinness picked up an Oscar for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Horse’s Mouth is certainly an odd choice of follow-up. It may have also won him the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival of that year, but still it’s strange to see Guinness playing such a dislikeable character and, as writer, putting him onscreen for every scene. The gruff misanthrope with unsavory social skills may be a little more commonplace now that Jack Nicholson need to continue working (see As Good As It Gets or About Schmidt) yet Guinness was still in his mid-forties when he took on the role of this curmudgeonly ex-con who, in his own words, is “tottering into the grave”. As such we’re undoubtedly dealing with a character piece here, dressed up as comedy perhaps, fascinating as a showpiece for the actor’s ability to inhibit the inner-life of eccentrics.
Any narrative therefore necessarily hangs on Gulley Jimson, this artist with conman tendencies, and it’s worth mentioning that The Horse’s Mouth was adapted from only one instalment of a trilogy of novels by Joyce Cary. We open with Gulley’s release from prison and it appears that most of his life’s dramas have already passed – failed marriage, fame, infamy. Furthermore his rebelliousness is fully formed and all his acquaintances – both friends and enemies – have already been made. As such catching up with Gulley is just that, gradually becoming privy to his selfishness, his debts, his genius and his grotesqueness. What plot there is revolves around his expression of all these things as he mounts a pair of giant murals (themselves created for the film by John Bratby) but importantly he never seems to change. The man who disappears into the frame during the final moments is the very same who enters it in the opening scene.
Yet whilst Gulley remains constant, The Horse’s Mouth as a whole veers wildly in tone. The eccentricities of Guinness rub off onto everyone else – there’s no-one here who you’d describe as straight – but it still manages to be really quite quaint. The acerbic nature of Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing comedies, which had previously provided Guinness with his most distinctive comedic roles, is little in evidence, yet you can’t escape the feeling that this isn’t a very happy feature. The spectre of death seems to hang on Gulley plus there’s an almost wanton destruction in place, both in terms of Gulley himself and that distinctive brand of British slapstick and screaming. As a result some elements get lost in the mix – the snobberies of the art world, the question of Gulley’s genius – and it’s difficult to ascertain as to whether this is lack of discipline on Neame’s part of Guinness’. Indeed, it’s tempting to imagine The Horse’s Mouth with Alistair Sim in the lead, an actor whose eccentrics were also easier to warm to that Guinness’. Maybe it does simply boil down to the fact that Gulley’s unlikeability as a character, as portrayed here, makes us look elsewhere for something to cling onto. And yet it’s also this portrayal which makes The Horse’s Mouth so interesting – a comedy that dares to be dislikeable and kind of gets away with it.
As is the case with most of Eureka’s current crop of budget releases, The Horse’s Mouth arrives on DVD in the UK in a minimal state. The menu offers only ‘play film’ and ‘scene selection’ options meaning no extras and no optional subtitles, English or otherwise. As such it relies solely on its presentation and, on the whole, it does pretty well. Original formats are maintained – in other words, 1.66:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced and mono soundtrack – and the only noticeable flaws are some moderate grain and intermittent flicker. Otherwise both sound and image remain crisp and clear throughout with the latter demonstrating sufficient sharpness and contrast. The colours appears a little drab perhaps, but then this could well have been cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s intention. Unfortunately I’ve never seen the Criterion edition in order to offer any kind of comparisons, but as a bare-bones budget release this disc does pretty much exactly as you’d expect.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:26:12