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 she dies, 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 eight of them in the line of succession to the dukedom.
Ealing Studios hit a purple patch towards the end of the 1940s. Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whisky Galore! were released five days apart in June 1949, and the studio had previously had Passport to Pimlico in cinemas in April. This film shows 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.
The film 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 – now – U certificate. (It was an A with cuts back in 1949, though, and an additional short scene at the end had to be added for US release to avoid falling foul of the Production Code.)
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, so as not to distract from the script and a fine cast. This is Dennis Price's greatest role and a tour de force by Alec Guinness playing all eight D'Ascoynes (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.
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. He died in 1963, aged just fifty-two.
Kind Hearts and Coronets was among the seven nominees for that year's BAFTA Award for Best British Film, along with the two other Ealing films mentioned above. None of them won: The Third Man did. Two of the other nominees were Thorold Dickinson's The 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 have been the greatest single year, not just for Ealing Studios, but for British cinema?
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. Seventy years on, it's the kind of film that only improves with age.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Dir: Robert Hamer | Cast: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson | Writers: John Dighton (screenplay), Robert Hamer (screenplay), Roy Horniman (novel)