The Horse's Mouth: The Criterion Collection
One of the problems with the modernization of the press is how it's changed the way the public looks at its heroes. From politicians to musicians, if you're not photogenic it's harder to get recognition, and if you're not personable just forget it. The public is all too aware if a talented person is labeled "difficult," and if something goes wrong in their career, the knives go out. How unfair is this that artists have to be held to both their public persona and their art? Some of the greatest artists of cinema have been jerks, womanizers, drunkards and louses and we're talking about Griffith, Chaplin, Hawks and Hitchcock. Maybe that's why pop art has become homogenized; it has to because the people who create it must be as well. And that's why one of the great pleasures in Ronald Neame's 1958 film The Horse's Mouth is seeing an artist who just doesn't care about what people think about him, and treats others only as good as he has to, to get what he wants. Based on a novel by Joyce Cary (based on the life of Dylan Thomas), the screenplay was adapted by Alec Guinness for the big screen for himself to star in, and it couldn't have found a better fit; playing Gulley Jimson, Guinness is a portrait of an artist as a royal pain in the ass. The film begins with Jimson being released from prison, as a young boy (Mike Morgan) follows him around trying to take care of him while Jimson tells the boy to piss off. This sets the tone for Gulley, as he goes about life trouncing those who are willing to support him because they know he's a genius; the first thing Gulley does once he gets some change is prank call one of his benefactors to tell him that, if he won't support him, he'll go to his house and kill him. Living in a worn-down houseboat, Gulley works on a painting and scrounges until the barkeep (Kay Walsh) who was keeping his mail presents him with a letter offering to buy one of his older works for a large sum of money. The two go to Jimson's ex-wife, hoping she'll give him the missing 19th painting from one of his earlier periods. But while at her house, all Gulley does is try to molest her, while she politely evades their questions. The couple who sent him the letter are still interested, and Jimson ends up at their house the day before they are to leave on holiday, but he ends up getting hammered while visiting with them, passes out, and gets left in there after they leave to which he assumes they will pay him £7,000 for a painting on of their blank walls. Jimson begins work on what he thinks will be one of his great pieces as he takes advantage of their supposed generosity, while he immerses himself in his art.
* * *
Though ostensibly a comedy (and the film is quite funny), The Horse's Mouth paints a portrait of Gulley as a strange man-child, someone completely defined by his obsession: He simply lives to paint, and he can't be bothered with very much else. And for all of the on-screen portraits of artists who wring their hands because of the bane of their "artistic vision," Guinness catches one of the most important elements of all artists their spoiled, childish temperaments. Jimson lives on impulse, so he is constantly flirting with ladies and cannot think beyond his basic needs because his art has such a strong hold over him. He knows he can do little else with success and barely has any time for manners, yet people are always on the lookout for him, even if he is constantly chiding them. Perhaps they know he is after something great, but most of his abuse is directed at his sponsors, which is something rooted in a deep loathing for the privileged-but-tasteless upper class. And yet the screenplay gives a great appreciation of this inner struggle, so much so that Gulley despite his temperamental behavior is a sympathetic figure. After finishing a portrait he bemoans his inability to capture what he really wanted, and in this speech he captures the essence of the artistic process; rarely do films give a reasonable appreciation of the greatness of art, yet his words convey the beauty and struggle of a hard-fought creation. Played with a raspy bullfrog voice, Alec Guinness lives and breathes this character, and for those who only know him from his work on either David Lean pictures or George Lucas's, it's a treat to see him playing a figure free from stodginess (though any cinema-anglophile will be aware of his Ealing comedies). Director Ronald Neame appreciates that this is Guinness's show and dutifully films one of the great screen actors at his very best.
Criterion's DVD release of The Horse's Mouth presents the film in a very colorful anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.66:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0, with optional English subtitles. Though there are the more standard extras, it should be noted that (as always) the booklet that accompanies the film is excellent, featuring essays by Bruce Eder, Ian Christie, and Neame. On the disc proper is a 19-minute interview with director Neame, the American trailer, and the short "Daybreak Express," a five-minute documentary by D.A. Pennebaker that opened the original New York theatrical run of The Horse's Mouth. Also included is a three-minute video introduction by Pennebaker. Keep-case.