Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
“He chopped down the family tree…”
Director: Robert Hamer
Cast: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson
Synopsis: A distant poor relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne plots to inherit the title by murdering the eight other heirs who stand ahead of him in the line of succession.
Perhaps the single constant factor in British movies up to and including the 1970s was its rigid definition of the class structure. A film character’s position in the social scale was instantly recognisable by his accent, clothes or attitude, depending on the genre. In war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, for example, the working class were uncomplicated and plain-speaking but could be relied upon to unquestioningly follow the orders of their superiors; in the comedies of the 1970s, however, they were usually work-shy, sex-addicted layabouts. The wealthy were invariably portrayed as having been born into their wealth rather than having acquired it through hard work and self-improvement (up until the 1960s, at least). One thing that rarely happened was any kind of upward mobility from one class to the other. It was generally considered unthinkable, and even if a working class man should acquire great wealth, he would still be considered working class because of his roots.
Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets taps into these class divisions to fashion a consistently amusing tale of one man’s ruthless ascent of the social ladder by means of all those family members who stand between him and what he considers to be his rightful position as the Duke D’Ascoyne. The man in question is Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family when she married a lowly Italian singer. Back in the early 20th Century, marriage between the classes was considered as taboo as inter-racial marriage would be in the 1960s, so Louis’s mother and her beau were disowned and left to make their own way in the world.
Growing up, Louis at first accepts his lowly status, but when the family refuse to allow his recently deceased mother to be buried in the family graveyard, he vows to kill off those family members who stand between him and the dukedom. With admirable patience and resourcefulness — and not a little style — Louis conscientiously works his way through the family lineage. With each new kill his social status is enhanced, until he is in a position to first conduct an affair with Sybilla (Joan Greenwood), the childhood sweetheart who once rebuffed his wedding proposal, and then win the hand of the upper-class widow (Valerie Hobson) of one of his victims. However, when Louis announces to Sybilla his plans to marry the widow, she frames him for the murder of her husband…
It’s difficult to imagine any British actor of the period other than Dennis Price giving such an agreeably measured performance as Louis Mazzini. George Sanders would be the obvious candidate, but there was something too Machiavellian about his delivery, even when he was playing one of the good guys. Price’s Mazzini is soft spoken, deceptively mild-mannered yet shrewdly self-contained, with a slightly effete delivery designed to calm and relax. You can imagine people liking to be around Louis, even though at heart, he’s a dislikeable character. One of the highlights of Hamer’s script is the way in which it keeps us on Louis’ side as he carries out his devious plan. True, the murders take place off-screen and are depicted in a deliberately humorous manner, but how many other serial killer movies do you know which have you rooting for the murderer? Price’s impeccable performance is matched by that of the kittenish Joan Greenwood as the equally scheming (but less murderous) Sybilla, but it is Alec Guinness who grabs the audience’s attention by playing no less than eight character, all of them victims — or potential victims — of the devious Louis. His performances are each as understated as Price’s, which allows us to focus on Mazzini and his intuitively succinct narration. Many actors in Guinness’s position would — and have since — used the opportunity to grandstand shamelessly, but Guinness quietly creates eight distinct characters, each with their own particular idiosyncrasies.
Kind Hearts and Coronets marked the beginning of Ealing studios’ remarkable run of whimsical comedies that have since come to define the studio, and while it is distinct from them thanks to a much darker, satirical tone and subject matter, it shares their common disrespect for authority figures. The only difference is that, in Kind Hearts and Coronets, authority is represented by the ruling class rather than government bureaucracy, and presents a much softer face in the versatile form of Guinness.
(Reviewed 9th December 2012)