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Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets(1949)

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This funniest of all English films is a wicked black comedy about getting ahead among the titled royalty, mainly by knocking them off like tenpins. Michael Balcon's Ealing Films certainly released eccentric films before this genteel ode to mass murder, but Robert Hamer's deliciously exacting use of the language, plus the oh-so-refined way in which his cultured Louis Mazzini goes about his revenge, makes for unrestrained hilarity: Nobody kills with as much panache as an English aristocrat exercising his privilege.

Synopsis: A tale told in flashback form: Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) learns that he and his mother were cruelly disinherited by her noble family, the D'Ascoynes. She dies without acknowledgement, her request to be buried in the family vault refused. Louis privately vows to avenge her by murdering his way to the title of Duke. Starting as a humble draper, he carves a homicidal path through the D'Ascoyne family tree (all played by Alec Guinness, including Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne). Along the way, Louis loses the love of his life Sibella (Joan Greenwood) when she marries another more promising spouse. As he nears the fruition of his plans, Louis has some juggling to do. He's promised himself in marriage to Edith D'Ascoyne, the widow of one of his victims (Valerie Hobson). But Sibella, realizing he might indeed become the Duke, has nefarious plans of her own.

In 1949, long before cynical and morbid humor became commonplace, this black velvet comedy must have delivered a considerable shock. From his black heart to his sharp tongue Louis Mazzini is a complete knave, and his lethal attitude toward the D'Ascoyne family is social satire at its most venemous. One would think the author had a grudge of his own against English nobility.

The landed gentry are secure in their positions and wealth, and have voted laws to make them officially superior to their common neighbors. As such they are easy targets for satire. But Kind Hearts and Coronets goes further than the usual ribbing to suggest that a Borgia-like extermination program is too good for such a decadent class. Death and murder are approached with a calm and detached optimism. Louis dispatches his enemies with a steady hand, an assured sense of justice and a healthy portion of self-interest. He's a complete hypocrite, of course; he wants to rejoin the upper class, not wipe it out.

Kind Hearts and Coronets charts Louis' murderous progress up the D'Ascoyne heraldry chart, slyly plotting his course to the Dukedom. Director Robert Hamer manages to make the mayhem screamingly funny without resorting to cheap gags or overly sick humor...almost. In a jail cell awaiting execution, Louis narrates his private diary with a fine sense of satisfaction, peppering his killings with clever little quips even as he poisons a parson or blasts a victim with a shotgun. One victim's demise is similar to an episode in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, when an afternoon tea on the lawn is interrupted by an explosion in the background.

In a famous piece of stunt casting, Alec Guinness plays all eight members of the D'Ascoyne family. His brief appearances command the screen but the film really belongs to Dennis Price's chillingly credible picture of class snobbery. His Louis Mazzini personifies the blue-blood ethic of privilege even as he condemns that quality in his ill-fated relatives. When fate eventually swings against him, Louis also demonstrates incredibly graceful manners. He's no phony or usurper, but a determined revenger getting his rights. Price is just great, finding 5 ways to look down his nose at people while worming his way into the good graces of his victims.

At first Louis seems to be taking terrible advantage of his adulterous mistress Sibella, until she shows a talent for devious calculation equal to his own. Louis' rule seems to be, 'fairness until crossed.' Sibella snubbed him when he was poor, so he has no problem bedding her and cuckolding her husband Lionel. Since the nobles always choose self-interest, there is nothing inconsistent in Louis' caddish behavior. Louis chooses the widow Edith to be his Duchess; her idea of what a 'responsible' upper-class person should be and do fits right in with his concept of Ducal virtue. Edith sincerely proclaims that an inn owner should not serve liquor on moral grounds - to protect the commoners from their own vices. Valerie Hobson (The Bride of Frankenstein) is near perfect in the role.

This also may be Joan Greenwood's best performance, the best film to appreciate her wonderful voice. She gets the best of the film's many priceless dialog lines. With little hope of becoming rich or regaining his lost title, Louis earnestly declares his love for Sibella and asks if, perhaps, he might someday be worthy of her. Sibella regards him and gives back just three words: "Pigs might fly."

The ubiquitous Miles Malleson has a choice part as a fussy hangman pleased to have the honor of executing such a fine gentleman. Arthur Lowe, Laurence Naismith, and Richard Wattis each have very small bits.

Criterion's 2-disc release of Kind Hearts and Coronets presents a sparkling, digitally scrubbed transfer of this revered English comedy, and embellishes it with two welcome long-form BBC presentations. The first is a feature-length docu on the history of the studio that includes enticing film clips from many English films unavailable in the states, such as It Always Rains on Sunday. Second up comes an equally thorough interview with Alec Guinness, who rarely gave interviews. The actor has something interesting to say about every chapter in his career, including his late-career performance (and his 2.25 point participation) in Star Wars.

We're also given the alternate American ending, which appeased our Production Code by making it clear that Louis Mazzini won't be laughing up his sleeve at the justice system. Of course, we wonder what difference the ending would make: Can English pardons, once dispensed, be rescinded?

An original trailer is accompanied by a handsome gallery of posters and production photographs. The disc's insert booklet offers an informed essay by critic Philip Kemp, that delves into the darker corners of Ealing history.

For more information about Kind Hearts and Coronets, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Kind Hearts and Coronets, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson