Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The Movie: Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne (Dennis Price), tenth Duke of Chelfont, sits in his cell on the night before his execution for murder. To pass the time, and to make sure posterity knows the truth, he writes his memoirs of what brought him here.

Louis tells us how his mother (Audrey Fildes) was a member of the noble D’Ascoyne family; but how he grew up poor because she eloped with an Italian opera singer (Dennis Price again). However, his mother brought him up on his noble birth and the histories of his family. This planted a dangerous ambition in him.

After his mother’s untimely demise, Louis decided he was going to reclaim his birthright and become the duke. Unfortunately, there were eight other people (all played wonderfully by the late Alec Guinness, although to his dismay most people only remember him as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars) in his way. Louis ambitiously decided to remedy this.

But as the bodies piled up and Louis place in the world began to improve, some complications crept in. First there was his growing love for Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the young widow of one of his first victims. Even more potentially disastrous is Sibella (Joan Greenwood, who also did the voice for the villainess in Barbarella), Louis’ mistress and former childhood friend, who is married to his childhood rival Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sibella has her own designs on Louis once she starts to realize what he’s really worth.

While Louis did obtain the dukedom, the unseen complications wound up getting him the murder charge as well. Now he awaits his execution, wondering if he might possibly obtain a last-minute reprieve…

The Review:

Now, in those days I never had any trouble with the Sixth Commandment

There is one, and only one, good thing that has ever come out of censorship. It is simply this; the artist is forced to be much more clever, creative and innovative than he would normally be without that impediment. This little fact was driven home for me when I was on the school newspaper in high school. My school was run by morons who constantly created and enforced extremely stupid and destructive policies. Unfortunately, we on the newspaper were not allowed to say anything critical of the school or the Powers That Be, even (actually “especially” would be the more appropriate word) when it was the gods’ honest truth. However my journalism teacher, probably second only to my parents as the worst influence on my life, didn’t care for them either and she provided me with the answer. “Nathan,” she would constantly tell me, “we can’t say that. But if you phrase it this way….”

Now, I have always had a passion for language and words; word games, innuendos, entendres, double meanings, and that most demonized of arts, the pun. As a result, writing for the paper became a game for me. I had a lot of fun seeing how critical I could be of the morons in power in ways that they couldn’t prevent. I had numerous successes and failures, but it was an educational experience that proved extremely useful when I entered the world outside of high school.

In the past few years I have seen a lot more of the older movies; specifically, ones that were made in the age of the abomination known as the Hayes Code. Admittedly, on their surface such movies seem quaint and tame; especially when compared to what you can see in films that came after the Code was ended. Also, it is true that the Code hamstrung quite a few movies that would otherwise have been good. However, there were quite a few more that were nowhere near as tame as they might appear to a modern audience. If you look and listen closely, you’ll notice that they’re playing the exact same game I played with my high school newspaper; and once you recognize that, you find some truly twisted and irreverent stuff.

At the time, Britain didn’t have the same kind of formalized code for what you could put into movies. However, the British government censored its country’s films just as harshly; and both countries kept the others’ censorship statutes in mind so they could sell their movies to each other. I am of the opinion that British humor is very adept at this kind of censor tweaking. The British have a way of saying one thing in a casual deadpan manner while conveying something else entirely that American humor has never quite gotten right.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy that perfectly exemplifies this method of humor. This movie is full of all sorts of twisted, irreverent, socially unacceptable behavior and raunchy humor; even by today’s standards. However, it is all played out in a strait faced manner that simultaneously serves to both hide the happenings from the more literal minded and emphasize them even more for those who are paying attention.

Take Louis and Sibella’s affair for example. Now, in those days sex, especially illicit sex such as adultery, was a definite no-no to the censors. The way the movie handles it as a result is pure genius. The most we actually see are a few passionate clinches and the fact that Sibella visits Louis’ apartment unchaperoned, which in the time of the movie’s setting would have been a major scandal. However, listening closely to the dialogue tells you what your eyes don’t. For example, one of my favorite lines is when Louis approaches Lionel at his and Sibella’s wedding and tells him “you’re a lucky man Lionel, take my word for it.” The line is spoken so casually that the more literal minded will probably not think much of it; Lionel certainly doesn’t notice anything. But if you’re paying attention, that seemingly innocuous phrase has worlds of ulterior meaning.

Then there’s how the movie handles Louis and his murders. The character of Louis, himself, is an amazing bit of dramatic sleight of hand. Throughout the entire course of the movie Price is never outwardly anything but reasonable, civil and seemingly decent. At the beginning, it’s very hard not to sympathize with him. The D’Ascoynes did wrong him and his mother, after all. Also, the majority of Louis victims are arrogant, obnoxious and/or self centered. It’s very hard not to cheer when he offs them.

And yet, as the movie goes on, we begin to see what a bastard Louis truly is. He still seems the civil, reasonable man we started out with; but his words and actions tell a very different story. By the end, much as we enjoyed seeing Louis dispose of the D’Ascoynes, we cannot help but feel that his own ambiguous fate is very much deserved.

Overall, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a very well made movie with a very talented cast. However, one actor stands far above all the others; Alec Guinness. Guinness plays eight very different roles throughout the movie; an arrogant young rake, an old and senile clergyman, an earnest and friendly young photography enthusiast, and a gruff and arrogant baron to name a few. What’s more, he nails each of them perfectly. In fact, it can be hard sometimes to believe that they’re all played by the same man.

Most people today remember Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, but the truth is he had a very long and distinguished career before he played that role. In fact, by all accounts he really hated that role and refused to acknowledge any mail from Star Wars fans. What’s really impressive is that it seems Guinness regularly played multiple complex roles in a single film. In the original script for Kind Hearts and Coronets he was only supposed to play four characters, but asked if he could do eight instead. The fact that he could do eight different parts as well and convincingly as he did speaks volumes about his talents.

In conclusion, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a wonderful film. Admittedly, on the surface it might seem tame and sedate by today’s standards. If you pay attention, though, you will see that it’s about as twisted and subversive as film as one could come across; it just hides it under a thin veneer of civility. If you’re into subtle, subversive cinema, seek this one out.

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