Black comedy flourished in Britain especially at Ealing Studios located in the suburbs of west London. There, actors like the esteemed Sir Alec Guinness, David Niven, and the unforgettable Alastair Sim (best Scourge) took part in these films. Film Forum offers a glimpse into this style as part of their Alec Guinness 100 tribute. Launching the series is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which Sir Alec Guinness dons multiple costumes to portray 8 different characters including a Lady heir.
Class tensions and misguided family obligations create the framework of how this plot is woven. The technique of having Louis’s voiceover as confessional narrator illustrates how he managed to find himself awaiting the executioner’s noose. Turns out this murderous man had an avenging mission. His words quickly depict his origin story.
Louis (Dennis Price) is the only child to a cast aside highborn woman who chose love through an Italian “operatic” singer over a duty bound marriage. The black humor reverberates throughout. For instance, Louis’s father (he plays that character too) perishes as soon as he learns of Louis’s successful birth. Dramas typically have the mother dying tragically, yet here it is the father in the nearby room. The D’Ascoyne family holds firm on ostracizing his mother now forced to take a tenant to make ends meet.
Louis fosters a childhood friendship with the offspring of someone of a “profession.” Seems that his mother can tolerate the notion with this burgeoning working class. As Louis matures, he humbly performs roles as clerk in various stores, and then loses his mother. Angered by the refusal by one of the D’Ascoynes to have his mother be eternally laid in the family crypt, Louis channels his ire into concerted killing. Chance grants him access to one of the many D’Ascoynes that stand to inherit the fortune in a ladies lingerie shop where he works. Louis is rebuffed by this D’Ascoyne, and rudeness is the lit fuse to commit Louis to his avenging plan.
In an astounding feat and a way to guarantee family physiological similarities, Alec Guinness portrays each D’Ascoyne that Louis must eradicate. With precision and eery blackheartedness, Louis regularly crosses off D’Ascoyne by D’Ascoyne on his abridged family tree with great verve. Louis ascends with each new death, and no matter that a few D’Ascoynes display contrition at how his mother was treated or extend kindess, Louis never falters or hesitates. The murder scenarios are hilarious with a critique that the upper class lack a discerning mind or ability to assess character of someone. Even while nobility are inherently supposed to possess attributes of high society, they manage to be blind to the lower ranks especially the upwardly mobile. Manners is enough of an effective mask for proper duping. Sir Guinness modulates the voice patterns, posture, hair and props to achieve variety of his characters. His suffragette Lady Agatha was particularly amusing in her penchant for destruction and attracting police attention.
Seemingly triumphant, Louis is about to enjoy his spoils when the wife to a dead cuckolded husband accuses him of murder as her own form of revenge on Louis. He had dumped Sibella (Joan Greenwood) for a highborn, and it is this same prejudice that limited his mother’s life that ultimately ensnares his freedom.
A playfulness and absurdity keep this macabre story in the realm of amusement. Film Forum‘s series scheduled Kind Hearts and Coronets for June 13th & 14th, 2014, but I do encourage making time in another way to watch this film. Alec Guinness 100 provides ample chance (until July 3rd, 2014) to view the talented actor in different roles before Star Wars stored his persona as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the next batch of film-goers.