Kind Hearts and Coronets Review
Louis Mazzini's (Dennis Price) mother married for love, with the result that she was cut off from her aristocratic family, the D'Ascoynes. When the current Duke (Alec Guinness) refuses to allow her to be buried in the family cemetery, Louis sets out to murder everyone who stands before him (all played by Guinness, eight roles in total) in the line of succession to the dukedom.
There's a strong case that 1949 was the greatest year for Ealing Studios, with Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts and Coronets being released five days apart in June of that year, and following Passport to Pimlico from April. And that's not all: the three of them were all among the seven nominees for that year's BAFTA Award for Best British Film, but none of them won. The Third Man did. Two of the other nominees were Thorold Dickinson's Queen of Spades and Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room. (The only nominee which hasn't really stood the test of time is A Run for Your Money, another Ealing comedy, directed by Charles Frend.) Could this be the greatest single year for British cinema?
Kind Hearts and Coronets is the fourth Ealing film that Optimum have reissued in the studio's eightieth anniversary year that I have reviewed for this site. A recurring theme is that, far from being the cosy wet-Sunday-afternoon television staples of reputation, many of the best Ealing films have a darker side, even a subversive one. It's there in the unsentimental worldview of an Alexander Mackendrick, in Whisky Galore! and especially The Ladykillers. And it's certainly there in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the blackest, most literate and wittiest of comedies. If it might be Ealing's greatest film, it's also a one-off. Robert Hamer's career was blighted by alcoholism but in this film he directed his masterpiece. His other notable Ealing work includes It Always Rains on Sunday and the “Haunted Mirror” episode of Dead of Night. Hamer died in 1963, aged just fifty-two.
Kind Hearts and Coronets was written by Hamer and John Dighton, from a 1907 novel, Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. This is one film that completely eclipses its source: Horniman's novel was long out of print before being republished in 2008. (The central character in the novel is Jewish, which was left out of the film.) As Mazzini mentions early on, this is a film where the fifth commandment is broken with abandon – and also the sixth, if you read between the lines. (And all this for a U certificate. Admittedly the film was cut in 1949 to gain an A certificate – does anyone know what was removed by the BBFC?) A little longer than many of its Ealing studiomates, Kind Hearts and Coronets' script is impeccably structured, leading up to a perfectly timed double twist. Hamer's direction is deceptively simple, not distracting from a great script and a fine cast. This is Dennis Price's greatest role and a tour de force by Alec Guinness playing all eight D'Ascoyne victims (originally he was offered four). The film is more about them than about the women – Valerie Hobson's Edith and Joan Greenwood's Sibella – but they play their roles to perfection. In smaller roles you can find Miles Malleson as a maundering hangman and, in the very last scene, Arthur Lowe. Uncredited as the young Sibella is Carol White. Douglas Slocombe's black and white camerawork, William Kellner's art direction and Anthony Mendleson's costume design are all excellent.
There aren't many flawless films. You could argue that, by the collaborative nature of the medium and because of human fallibility, there are none. But if such things exist, I'd suggest that Kind Hearts and Coronets belongs on that list. I first saw it in my teens, as part of a BBC2 Ealing season. It's the kind of film that only improves with age, both its and mine.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is released by Optimum on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. The affiliate links in this review refer to the DVD edition. For affiliate links for the Blu-ray, go here.
Like the other three Ealings I've reviewed, Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot in Academy Ratio and is presented on DVD in 4:3. However, like The Lavender Hill Mob and unlike Went the Day Well? and Whisky Galore! it's, unusually, anamorphically enhanced, that is a 4:5 picture pillarboxed into a 16:9 frame. Owners of 4:3 televisions should set their player to “4:3 Pan Scan” or the equivalent, and then the picture should fill the screen. If you have the settings as “4:3 letterbox” you will have black bars on all four sides. As with The Lavender Hill Mob, I've compared the transfer with that of the 2002 release as part of the four-disc boxset Ealing Comedy DVD Collection (the other two being The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers). That earlier transfer was non-anamorphic, and was certainly good enough for its time, but is softer than the new, digitally-restored version.
The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well-balanced. Optimum have provided hard-of-hearing subtitles on the feature only.
John Landis provides a short introduction (2:51). This is one of his favourite films and his enthusiasm is clear, but this isn't anything more than a basic primer, with the brief running time made briefer by two extracts from the film.
The commentary is provided by Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, film director Terence Davies and Matthew Guinness, son of Alec. Davies thinks this film is the greatest comedy ever made and says so several times (“gorgeous” is the word he often uses) and Bradshaw is of a similar opinion, so you get a commentary of much appreciation but not a great deal of information. Guinness tends to be overshadowed by the other two, but does contribute some nice anecdotes – for example, when his father filmed Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne's going down with his ship, the crew finished for the day without realising that Guinness was still underwater.
“Those British Faces: Dennis Price” (25:52) is a short profile of the actor made for Channel 4 in 1993 Richard Todd narrates this documentary, made up of plentiful clips from Price's films. It's a sad story of a decline mostly due to money troubles (according to Price, gambling debts; according to others, blackmail due to his homosexuality, illegal at the time) and a career that ended in what the narration describes as “the cheapest horror films” (not to mention The Adventures of Barry McKenzie). He was working right up until the end, his death in 1973 at the age of fifty-eight. This documentary was written and produced by John Ellis, who is much in evidence on the Whisky Galore! DVD.
Finally, there is an audio essay by Simon Heffer (14:58), number four in the series British Cinema of the 1940s and first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 16 September 2010. Heffer discusses the original novel and its transformation into what he describes as the most subversive film ever made in the British cinema – something less easy to do in an era of post-war austerity than in a time of social change when the likes of if... and A Clockwork Orange were made. He also talks about the altered ending of the American version of the film, put in to appease the Production Code Administration. That ending is included on this DVD (2:40): the difference being a new final shot after Louis says “My memoirs...”
Director of photography Douglas Slocombe, aged ninety-eight as of this writing, is or may be the only person involved with Kind Hearts and Coronets in any major capacity still to be alive. He is represented by a BECTU interview (28:44), conducted by Sidney Cole on 22 November 1988. These extracts feature a nervous-sounding “Dougie” talking about how he became a cameraman from a background in documentary, with some discussion of Kind Hearts and Coronets, This item is audio-only, accompanied by a still of the man himself on the set of that film.
The extras are concluded by a restoration comparison (5:34), a stills gallery (not self-navigating) and the theatrical trailer (2:51, like the feature in 1.33:1 anamorphic).
This restored version of Kind Hearts and Coronets is also showing in selected cinemas for a limited time. One example is the BFI Southbank.
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