Film: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
Ealing comedies are their own thing. They aren’t laugh-out-loud funny the way that we tend to think of comedies. Oh, they might well have been that funny 60 years ago, but today, there’s a quaintness to them that they can’t quite shake. They’re more cute than hysterical, more sweet than biting. The exception to this rule is Kind Hearts and Coronets.
The big sell for this film is that Alec Guinness plays eight different members of the D’Ascoyne family ranging in age from 24 to something north of eighty-ish, and one of the character he plays is a woman. But Guinness isn’t considered the star of the film by any stretch, despite being the main attraction. It’s a testament to the man’s skill in front of the camera that he manages to give many of these divergent people very different and distinct personalities.
The plot, for all its loops and switches, is pretty simple. The daughter of the D’Ascoyne family (Audrey Fildes) runs away with a commoner, an opera singer, and is immediately disowned by the family at large. Her husband dies of a heart attack the moment he sets eyes on his infant son, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price, who also plays the father for the couple of minutes he is in the film). Throughout his young life, his mother attempts to reconcile with the family, but is rebuffed at every turn, causing Louis to develop a large grudge against his relatives. When is mother dies and is refused burial in the family plot, his grudge turns murderous.
See, through a quirk in the title, the Dukedom of Chalfont can transfer through the mother’s line as well, making Louis very distant in the line for the title. Forced into the trades and working in a shop, Louis begins to scheme. His plan is to slowly kill his way up the ranks until he can achieve the dukedom, acquiring the title (and specifically the riches) that are, in his mind, rightfully his. A chance encounter with one of the D’Ascoynes sets the plan in motion, and he starts killing his way through the ranks, needing to knock off eight people until he inherits (all eight of the D’Ascoynes are played by Guinness).
Complicating matters is a rather strange love trapezoid. Louis is, he thinks at first, desperately in love with Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a childhood friend. But Sibella is flighty, kind of stupid, and most importantly, something of a gold digger. She’ll have nothing to do with Louis, opting instead to marry Lionel (John Penrose), another childhood friend. Sibella toys with Louis until the eve of her marriage and then almost immediately starts an affair with him.
As for Louis, the more he sees Sibella, the more he believes that she simply doesn’t deserve to be a duchess. Instead, he begins courting Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the wife of the late Henry D’Ascoyne, who was second on Louis’s list of murders. And so with two women essentially pursuing him, a number of murders on his hands, and a mysterious death that points a finger at him, Louis is now in serious trouble. In fact, the film starts with him writing his memoirs in prison on the eve of his execution.
This film is dark. Really dark. Pitch black in terms of comedy, and most of it still works perfectly. Louis is a complete bastard and shows no compunction at killing anyone who gets in his way. The irony here is that beyond the first murder (a highly entertaining affair, actually), he doesn’t have a lot of excuse to continue doing what he does. Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the first victim, is a complete bastard, and while murder is never really conscionable, he sort of gets what he deserves. Of the other seven victims (and truth be told, a couple die without assistance), six are elderly and won’t live terribly long. The last is Henry, who genuinely seems to like Louis, and would almost certainly welcome him back into the family, if not specifically giving him the title and the lands. It almost seems like he could have simply killed off Ascoyne and then waited patiently.
More to the point, there is virtually no one likeable in this film, and in this case, that works perfectly. Louis is callous, vain, and vicious in his revenge. Lionel is spoiled, stupid, arrogant, and possessed of few social graces. Edith, who becomes the mountain that Louis must climb, is a self-righteous prig. In fact, the death of her husband happens in the way it does because he is forced to keep alcohol in the shed out back, lest she see him drinking it. Finally, there is Sibella. She deserves her own paragraph.
Sibella is, for lack of a better way to put it, the cheerleader/captain of the football team who wouldn’t deign to look at someone not of her social standing. She initially proposes to marry Lionel simply because Lionel has a lot more money than Louis, and the prospect for a great deal more. When Louis begins to move up in the world, she immediately transfers her affections to him. In many ways, she is the femme fatale of the film, and acts in a way very much befitting the coldest and most callous of what film noir has to offer. It’s insanely easy to dislike Sibella, which is naturally exactly what you are supposed to do with her. She’s awful, and even when he decides that she’s not duchess material, Louis is helpless against her.
But, it’s this natural dislike of these people that make the film work as well as it does. We don’t want good things to happen to these people at all, and they don’t.
All this aside, there’s really one main reason to watch this film, and that’s for the work of the great Alec Guinness. He is excellent throughout the film in all of the different roles he plays. The comedy is midnight black, and Sibella is a shade over the top, but Guinness manages to be entertaining at every moment he is on screen. If for no other reason, he’s why Kind Hearts and Coronets remains an important film, and a funny one. Just realize going in that the laughs come from a place that most of us don’t like to admit we have.
Why to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets: Alec Guinness + Alec Guinness + Alec Guinness….
Why not to watch: Any character worth cheering for is on the hit list.