Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)

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!!! A+ FILM !!!

It isn’t one single thing that leads disaffected blue-collar Louis Mazzini to start killing estranged members of his mother’s family. As with so many of us, he takes on the dirty proposition of murder somewhat reluctantly, though with a kind of relish when it begins to happen. What breaks him is first the treatment of his deceased mother, and her dead body, by her extended family; she’d been in line to become an obscure Duchess but was excommunicated from the line after she married a handsome Italian. Then there is the resentment bred by his own interactions with these upper-crust, usually snobbish and pigheaded people, treating him as a lower life form when they descend enough to actually interact with him. Not only does this give further ammunition to justify the series of killings he must commit to restore himself to the line for the title, it also makes the potential victims seem so much less distant; as he puts it, “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.” But finally and most importantly, there is a woman (isn’t there always?) who would be pretty damn impressed if it turned out her childhood semi-sweetheart and former side piece, cast aside for a dull husband, turned out to be a man of means.

Black comedy offers some of the richest humor in literature and cinema, but the lion’s share of it is dreadful; the tonal trickery required to teeter on the edge of crass morbidity but retain good-natured and humorous enough to please an audience of more than two or three people is exhaustingly hard to define, particularly when one is expected to identify with a protagonist charged with the carrying out of horrendous deeds, as in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, arguably the peak of the output of the legendary British outfit for acidic satire, Ealing Studios. Even some of Ealing’s own films come down on the side of simplistic and mean-spirited; while The Ladykillers is an acknowledged classic with extremely funny moments, it never quite transforms the evil actions it puts on display into the stuff of uproarious laughter. A lot of modern films that attempt a similar quality come off as smarmy and nihilistic.

But Kind Hearts is the way black comedy should be, and indeed, the way movies should be. It boasts an exhaustively well-crafted screenplay by Hamer and John Dighton, with an intense layering of true character depth (not “quirks”), story sophistication and even emotional intricacy. It may, in fact, be too limiting to call it a black comedy, thanks to its elements of drama, romance, suspense, satire, tragedy, even slapstick. The only proper way to describe it is as outstanding entertainment with incredible resonance: A movie with almost everything, and an actual thrill to watch.

Dennis Price stars with superb understatement as a man whose mother was cast off from a family of royalty; embittered by the scoffing at his mother’s choice of romantic partner, desirous of a raspy-voiced, openly sexual woman named Sibella (Joan Greenwood) who regards him as little more than a flake of amusement, and craving the title of Duke, he decides to murder everyone in the family. All of whom are played by Alec Guinness: Guinness as an old man, Guinness as a strapping youngster, Guinness as nervous photographer, Guinness as an aged man of God, Guinness as a wealthy bank manager, Guinness as a ship captain with a death-wish, Guinness as a middle-aged snob, Guinness as a renegade activist woman, and so on. In the meantime, Price’s Louis eventually grows accustomed to the ornate surroundings and begins to fall in love with the puritanical widow (Valerie Hobson) of one of his victims while still attempting to juggle the affections of the now-married woman who largely prompted his reasoning for the ordeal to begin with.

The movie isn’t silly. In fact, in direction and execution it’s played as a drama, but one of (at times cartoonishly) heightened realism in the vein of Citizen Kane. This gives weight to the comedy and drama both; the surehanded subtleties of the performances are equally beneficial. Price is not a lunatic or a brat; he’s a little of both, but he hides it well enough. Like any great villain, he’s a charmer and a sweetheart. Alec Guinness’ wide-ranging portrayals of the eight murder victims are not over-the-top and farcical, they are believable representations that nevertheless revel in absurdity. It would be easy for Greenwood to play Sibella as a raging, Marilyn Monroe-style sexpot. Instead, she’s razor-sharp, enterprising, full of loss and dread, a stylized blonde but a cunning character embodied by a forceful performance. It would be easy for Hobson to turn Edith into the easily manipulated wife of the recently deceased, but instead of focusing on the surreal and comic nature of her situation, Hobson turns her into a breathing human, a woman of shadow and substance, difficult and critical but strong, trusting, good. Not a single one of the three vital characters could even be mistaken for a cutout, and really, neither could the eight Guinness caricatures. This is the rare comedy that avoids archetypes almost completely.

Although it passed the Code upon importation to the U.S. with a few cuts and line changes, Kind Hearts and Coronets is interestingly sexual, and quite frank about it when compared to contemporaneous American films. The very plot relies enough on castoff impulses that it gets away with more than almost anyone else did at the time. (“You have too much good in you,” Lady D’Ascoyne prophetically quotes her husband as saying. “I sometimes wish that others could have a share of it.”) Most impressively, the film is able to pass off a thoroughly illegitimate affair entirely through suggestion, even more successfully than Double Indemnity and most other Hollywood films of its stripe. Much of it is in Greenwood’s fantastic ability to display the depths of erotic depravity in her face, more than ever at the finale, when she suddenly has the upper hand and stares into Price with steely, burning eyes.

Kind Hearts is really an examination of hypocrisy, therefore an examination of human nature, and the constant unsolved battle between instinctive behaviors and our moral convictions. The movie is about the killer with a noble cause, the prudish wife who is dying for someone else to fuck, the independent woman with no reason to hide her earthy reasons for marriage and no clue as to the consequences for resigning herself to such a wholesome fate, the fortunate few who view their bloodline as sacred and infallible until one of them does something unsavory, the man who will fight and kill with the illusion of avenging his mother because of what it will do for his love life and monetary condition, the man who fights for what is his while taking away the most vital posession of eight others. It is about people who, when they feel they must, revert to animal status. We all do it, regardless of whether we want to. The question is whether we choose the right time or place. Which characters in the film do or do not achieve this is up to the viewer.

Like David Lean before him and Robert Wise and Hal Ashby after, Robert Hamer is among the few well-known directors to begin his career in film editing, hence — one surmises — the gloriously flippant fast cutting that makes the flashbacks in Kind Hearts so strikingly brutal. (Voiceover persists throughout the film but is largely necessary and never a distraction.) It’s in this sense that the visual aspects of the film are most noteworthy; while the great Douglas Slocombe’s photography of these wide, wealthy and hollow spaces is perfectly beautiful, his real achievement is in making a series of special effects virtually invisible, thus allowing Guinness to appear up to eight times in a single shot in different costumes. But the highest praise of all should be held for the film’s very structure, which is greater and more wonderfully satisfying than you can imagine. Wait for the finale. Just you wait.

In life, Hamer detested the class-based decorum of Edwardian society; the delicious amorality of his film is an expression of his heart, forced to repress his sexuality in a country in which being gay was illegal. The film’s cavalier, sneering attitude of crime and punishment thus is not an expression of privilege, like that espoused by the Nietzsche-loving students in Rope, but of oppression, and thus his rebellion draws a clean line to the “Angry Young Man” movement later in Britain, though he died too young to harness the new youthful cinema in the ’60s.

There is nothing simple about anything this film does; every trace of it, in both the humorous and shatteringly serious elements, is approached from all possible angles. The deaths are funny, but they are also tragic. The hero is an understandable human but also a monster, a nutcase. And the women both are sympathetic figures who ultimately are as finally willing as any of us to go all too far for what they really want. Enthusiasm for this one is nearly impossible to contain. See it, see it, see it!

[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]

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