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Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Criterion Collection

It was Voltaire, probably, who said that if Alec Guinness did not exist it would be necessary for Ealing Studios to invent him. Guinness' career-making streak in such cracking good London-based Ealing comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers began in grand fashion with 1949's elegant and cold-hearted Kind Hearts and Coronets. While playing eight members of an aristocratic family targeted for murder, Guinness apportioned his performance with more than just trying on funny wigs and makeup. No matter which member of the rarefied D'Ascoyne gene pool he played — the bank president, the doddery old parson, firebrand suffragist Lady Agatha, a general fatally fond of his caviar, foppish Young Henry, and so on — Guinness gave even the walk-ons a memorable turn. Furthermore, a lesser performer (meaning just about all of them) would have larded up the roles into blowhard grotesqueries. As proper for a dry, wry comedy that's "droll" and "brittle" rather than merely "funny," there's nothing ostentatious or look-at-me! about Guinness' multiple D'Ascoynes. (Thus any comparison with Eddie Murphy and the Klumps ends before it begins.)

Although today Kind Hearts and Coronets is remembered as his virtuoso showcase, Guinness himself appears to understand that he is not, after all, the film's lead. That's Dennis Price, who more than holds his own as the most genteel and cordial of murderers. ("It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.") The original poster art for Kind Hearts and Coronets placed Guinness' name last after Price, Valerie Hobson, and Joan Greenwood, and offered no clue about his now-famous eightfold tour de force.

The film opens on His Grace the tenth Duke of Chalfont (Price) penning his memoirs in prison, whiling away his final hours before his hanging. The narrative then unfolds in flashback. Until recently the current duke was, in fact, just a commoner, Louis Mazzini. Before his birth, the haughty family disowned his mother, a D'Ascoyne, for marrying an Italian opera singer, thus denying both mother and son of their heritage and birthright. After his mother dies in near poverty and is refused burial in the ancestral vault, young Louis vows to avenge her and claim the dukedom for himself via a thorough pruning of the privileged and elitist family tree. By nature every inch the English gentleman, Louis is adept at "impersonating a man of sterling character" and ingratiating himself to the heirs ahead of him (each played by Guinness). He understands that, among other "discreet requirements of twentieth century homicide," revenge is a dish best served with a quality port.

Price's insouciant callousness gives Kind Hearts its coolly amoral humor. Lady Agatha floats high above London in a hot-air balloon to rain down Women's Rights pamphlets; Louis punctures her balloon and quips, "I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square." As he kills his way up the peerage, we become co-conspirators amused by such nonchalant doings-in, not to mention the sarcasm aimed at the haute-bourgeoisie in all its inbred snobberies and caste privilege.

Meanwhile, two women attract his affections. The more marriageable is Edith D'Ascoyne (Hobson), the prim yet appealingly regal widow of one of his victims. The other is the beauty who rejected him in their younger days, Joan Greenwood's sensual, butterscotch-voiced Sibella. Even while he's betrothed to Edith, and Sibella is married to a rival, they maintain a clandestine friends-with-benefits acquaintanceship. During Louis' trial for a murder he did not commit, and while his deferential executioner (Miles Malleson, marvelous) readies the silken noose, Sibella reveals that she alone is Louis' equal in self-interested conniving. The resulting fillip in the final scene was too much for America's skittish Production Code, which demanded that the U.S. version end with a wholesome yawn rather than a cheerfully nasty smirk.

Director Robert Hamer didn't exhibit the fully cinematic visual talents of his Ealing colleague Alexander Mackendrick. But as a talented craftsman neither did he get in the way of the film's sophisticated charms. In our tiresome era of older films "re-imagined" with abrasive overkill, where would his finely tuned work keeping Kind Hearts low-key and straight-faced go? It's hard to imagine any new version with a cast half this good, or a cast that doesn't lean into each performance until it falls over, or doesn't add blinking exclamation points to the script's flinty one-liners (a script that assumes a certain level of literacy in the audience to boot).

On the British Film Institute's current list of best British films of all time, Kind Hearts and Coronets ranks number 6. In 2000, readers of the U.K.'s Total Film magazine voted Kind Hearts and Coronets the 25th greatest comedy film to date. In 2004 the magazine named it the 7th greatest British film. Total Film also calls it "a reminder that, once upon a time, British cinema could match anything that came out of Hollywood." Like a voodoo curse, saying those words aloud could result in some Hollywood exec green-lighting a modern-day remake. No surprise, then, that in 2000 word leaked out about a remake in development, with Will Smith in the Price role and Robin Williams reminding us how great Guinness was. With memories of 2004's dental-drill remake of The Ladykillers in mind, it's a relief to search online and see little evidence that Kind Hearts and Coronets' Mrs. Doubtfire treatment ever left the "let's do lunch" stage. For once, let's leave perfection alone.

*          *          *

Of course Criterion's two-disc edition of Kind Hearts and Coronets is excellent. However, it is pricey for the mild print-quality improvement over Anchor Bay's very good edition from 2002, so owners of that single-disc release needn't worry that this one's a mandatory upgrade. Nonetheless, if you don't already own the film, or you do but desire a slightly (but noticeably) superior image and some quality extras, you can't go wrong with Criterion. This new, restored transfer from a 35mm composite fine-grain master yields a flawless print (1.37:1, windowboxed slightly). The clean black-and-white image is somewhat sharper and brighter than Anchor Bay's, with newly boosted black tones and grayscale. The DD 1.0 audio track is clean, but it's a bit harsh or muddy in spots (presumably from the original audio source track). In the first scene, turning on the English subtitles revealed that the executioner's boast that even his mentor "never had the privilege of hanging a Jew" is actually "never had the privilege of hanging a duke."

Criterion's extras always make a release worth the attention. Here that means the BBC's 1986 documentary, "Made In Ealing: The Story of Ealing Studios" (75 mins.), with film clips and interviews with Joan Greenwood, Alexander Mackendrick, and others for a thorough and engaging history of the venerable film factory.

In 1977, the interview-shy Guinness appeared on Michael Parkinson's BBC chat show, and we get that entire 68-minute episode with Sir Alec at his charming best; among his anecdotes is a spooky forewarning encounter with James Dean and Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder days before the American actor's death in the car.

Also here are the Code-appeasing American ending, the original theatrical trailer, a vast click-through gallery of production and publicity photos, and a liner notes booklet with an essay by film critic and scholar Philip Kemp. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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