Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.”

Plot Summary: A disgruntled descendant of an aritocratic British family murders his way to the dukedom  

Review:

Robert Hamer’s Ealing studio masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets, is a witty, literate satire of British manners and murders featuring one of the screen’s most memorably diabolical characters, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Having been wronged by the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family for disinheriting his mother and thus depriving him of his birthright as duke, Louis, who simply cannot endure the indignities of working in a haberdashery, sets out to seize the dukedom by murdering the eight unsuspecting relatives standing in his way.  No protagonist in cinema history is as heartlessly murderous as Louis, yet he carries out his foul deeds with such panache that one can’t help but root for him, and therein lies the dark beauty of the film: because everything is filtered through narrator Louis’ point-of-view, and because he’s the cleverest, wittiest, and most charismatic character, we find ourselves vicariously participating in his scheming and sharing in his triumphs as he dispatches each new victim. 

In a magnificent feat of acting, Alec Guinness plays all eight victims, each with a distinctive look and demeanor, including a pompous Duke, a gruff General, a sanctimonious priest and a portly suffragette!  Some of these characters are thoroughly dislikable, and so we feel no loss at their passing; others do elicit our pity, especially the friendly amateur photographer, but we laugh anyway when Louis, after spiking the poor chap’s darkroom lamp with gasoline, laments: “He seemed like a very pleasant fellow and I regret that our acquaintanceship must be so short.”  Sentimentality, you see, cannot stand in the way of Louis’ rightful destiny.

As wonderful as Guinness is, however, the film clearly belongs to Price. As our amoral guide through this “study in the gentle art of murder,” he’s in nearly every scene, provides the deliciously wicked voice-over narration and delivers all the great witticisms with impeccable timing and evident relish, such as when he bids Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne farewell, after puncturing her hot-air balloon with an arrow, with a memorable rhymed couplet: “I shot an arrow into the air/She fell to earth in Berkeley Square.” Cloaking his murderous agenda beneath a veneer of respectability, Louis is at once charming and monstrous, gentlemanly and devious, witty and malicious, and Price’s remarkably nuanced performance reveals the full dimension of his complex character. 

Joan Greenwood and Valerie Hobson provide excellent support as, respectively, Louis’s purring, seductive mistress, Sibella, and the elegant, upright noblewoman, Edith, whom Louis weds after murdering her husband!  Cool and calculating, Sibella seems to be Louis’s ideal match, while the classy, refined Edith is the sort of person Louis aspires to become - once he’s finished with all this murder business, that is.  Because the two women represent two sides of Louis, it’s perfectly understandable why he says, “While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith”, and entirely fitting that his ultimate fate should hinge on his having to choose between the two of them.

Hamer once said about Kind Hearts and Coronets that he was trying to make a film that was 1) “not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language” and that 2) “paid no regard whatever to established moral conventions”, and given the utter originality and dark, irreverent wit of the resulting film one would have to conclude he succeeded brilliantly on both counts. Alcoholism eventually took its toll on Hamer, and he never again made a film nearly as good, but when a filmmaker creates just one film in his career as perfectly realized as Kind Hearts and Coronets it is more than enough.

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