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The Horse's Mouth

The Horse's Mouth

Winner of a Best Actor Academy Award the previous year for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Alec Guinness received his first and only writing nomination for his first and only screenplay with The Horse's Mouth (1958), a witty and quirky tale of a difficult but dedicated painter. In Gulley Jimson, Guinness gave himself a truly memorable character with plenty of opportunities for both wickedly funny and poignant, near tragic moments as he battles conventional society and the misfits closest to him in his quest for artistic integrity...and enough money to at least keep his ramshackle houseboat-studio afloat and pay his debts to Coker, his long-suffering on-and-off barmaid sweetheart.

The story was not original to Guinness; in fact, he wasn't the first to think of bringing it to the screen. The character was created by well-respected novelist Joyce Cary in his 1944 novel of the same title. Actor Claude Rains was very attracted to the idea of playing Gulley and sent director Ronald Neame the book hoping to make a film adaptation with him. Neame, however, found he couldn't even get through the novel and thought the whole story unfilmable. A few years later, Guinness, now an international star thanks to a string of successful British comedies he made beginning in 1949 (including his first movie with Neame, The Card, 1952), brought the book to the director again and urged him to reconsider. This time, Neame found that he loved the story and the character, but he still considered it impossible to put on screen. Guinness asked if he might have a go at the screenplay, and Neame answered with an enthusiastic "yes." What the actor came up with, Neame later said, was only a fraction of the book but one that captured the essence of the story and the character, even with some scenes completely invented by Guinness, such as the wealthy patrons falling through a hole in the floor wrapped in a large carpet, a piece of comic business later used by Blake Edwards in S.O.B. (1981).

With The Horse's Mouth, Neame, Guinness, and producer John Bryan were able to make a film about an artist that avoided the often somber and reverent tones of biographies about real-life painters. In building a story around a fictional painter they ran into the problem of what his art would look like and who would create it for the film. To fit the character, they needed someone very talented, contemporary, and provocative. The eminent art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke led them to John Bratby, a founder of what was known as the "kitchen sink" school of art, highly influential in Britain in the 1950s and strongly expressionistic in approach. The term, in fact, had been coined by a critic writing about a painting of Bratby's depicting a kitchen sink, seeing in it a trend among young painters to depict domestic scenes stressing the banality and griminess of daily life in working class England. (The term was also applied to new works of drama by the likes of John Osborne, author of the 1956 play Look Back in Anger, which transformed British theater during this period.)

Neame and company were fascinated by Bratby's way of working, squeezing large dollops of paint directly from tube onto the canvas and then working these thick globs of color with a palette knife. The method was costly (a great deal of paint ended up on the studio floor) but Neame and his cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (whom Neame had promoted from camera operator on this picture) loved the way Bratby's technique imparted a natural depth to the paintings' surfaces that, when lit at a three-quarter angle, gave a strength, intensity, and texture to the work that could never have been achieved by a brush. Guinness often visited Bratby when he was working, observing his movements and moods (the real-life artist was frequently as roguish and contrary as the on-screen painter). When Bratby's wife saw the movie, she was able to pick out the visual bits that the actor had keenly lifted from his model.

Although Guinness regarded The Horse's Mouth as one of his finest works, its reception among British critics was only lukewarm. Some carped at its failure to fully capture Cary's novel, while others found the lead performance self-indulgent and gimmicky. But it was well-regarded enough within the country's film industry to earn Guinness a British Academy Award nomination for his screenplay and another for Kay Walsh's supporting performance as his loyal girlfriend. The Horse's Mouth was much better received outside of England. Walsh won the US National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress, and Guinness received Best Actor awards in festivals at Venice and Barcelona. The picture was also a hit in the Soviet Union, where it was popular for its depiction of an artist in conflict with capitalist society. The Horse's Mouth was even selected for a Royal Premiere charity screening in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother at the Empire Leicester Square theater in February 1959.

An interesting note about this film's exhibition in the U.S.: When it played at the Paris cinema in New York, the opening short was the first film by noted documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who later created such films as the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back (1967) and The War Room (1993) about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. The theater's manager originally offered to buy Pennebaker's impressionistic piece about the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue El train for $100, telling the artist that was a far better deal than just renting it for the short period that foreign films usually played at the Paris. Instead, the director opted for a $25 per week rental rate, which turned out to be more lucrative when The Horse's Mouth proved to be a big hit with Manhattan audiences and was held over for many weeks. Pennebaker's short is now included in the Criterion Collection DVD release of the Guinness picture.

Director: Ronald Neame
Producers: Albert Fennell, John Bryan, Ronald Neame
Screenplay: Alec Guinness, based on the novel by Joyce Cary
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Editing: Anne V. Coates
Art Direction: William C. Andrews
Paintings by John Bratby
Cast: Alec Guinness (Gulley Jimson), Kay Walsh (Coker), Renee Houston (Sara), Mike Morgan (Nosey), Robert Coote (Sir William Beeder).

by Rob Nixon



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