Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”
Last week I noted how Stanley Kubrick seemed to be a theme in these articles, well it seems that Alec Guinness is additionally becoming a bit of a focus point with Great Expectations, The Ladykillers, and now, Kind Hearts and Coronets all starring the unforgettable actor. As all three films were released between 1946 and 1955, they all deal with issues of class and social difference. Additionally, alongside If…, all four films feature in the Top 13 BFI British Films. Its seems that we Brits have issues about social class.
As discussed previously, Great Expectations portrays Pip supported by finances that are not his, whilst The Ladykillers portrays an educated ‘Professeur’ conduct a bank-robbery. Kind Hearts and Coronets is much more direct. Our lead character Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) has been cut-out of his inheritance due to his Mothers choice to marry a “poor” singer – opposed to marrying someone from money. Louis’ father dies when he is born and Mother and Son struggle to cope financially – constantly asking for support from their relatives but to no avail. So Louis takes matters into his own hands and, one-by-one, kills off each of the family so that he will become the next member of the family to inherit the estate of the D’Ascoyne’s.
Re-released in 2011
Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian, on the films re-release, stated how this film shows how “the Ealing genre reached utter perfection”. Akin to Alfred Hitchcocks’ upper-class thrillers such as Rope, Dial M For Murder and Suspicion (if the film had the original ending), the story portrays a serial killer who is intelligent, arrogant and expects life to always go to plan. Louis is quite comfortable in the murder of each family-member, with no regret or remorse – only the frustration at the end that he was sentenced to a crime he did not commit.
Unlike many Ealing Comedies, this film was dramatically changed when originally released in America. As I understand, the US Criterion collection has released a double-disc set with both versions of the film. Crucially, what was originally a highly-ambiguous ending became clear cut as the Hays Office clarified Louis’ arrest – opposed to an ending to the film that hints at the threat of his arrest, without showing it.
Chalfont and the D’Ascoyne’s
In a similar way to Sleuth, the castle and estate which Louis desperately seeks, clearly shows how much is at stake. The castle is, in fact, Leeds Castle, in Kent, and dating back to 1119, like Sleuth and Great Expectations it is clear that location represents the old idealogies and what has changed. Like Michael Caine’s Italian roots, Mazzini has the same paternal background and, as the younger generation, they are replacing the older generations traditions. At one, very telling point, the upper-class love-interest of Edith D’Ascoyne states how the D’Ascoyne’s know much about “The rights of nobility and little of its duty”.
This sentiment may be true, but it is clear that the successor in Louis Mazzini assumes he has a ‘right’ to the financial wealth and believes it so much that he will murder others for it. His duty is corrupted as he gains more power in the family and assumes control of their assets and businesses.
Alec the Chameleon
If someone was asked to name an actor who played multiple roles in a single film, the first three that many may consider are Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professer, Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II and Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. I can only stress how incredible Guinness is in Kind Hearts and Coronets as he portrays eight different characters – from Captains who go down with their ship to Lady Agatha, a womens-rights activist, shot down in an air balloon. Each role is barely recognisable if you didn’t pay attention to his thin-lips and distinctive nose – his mannerisms, accents and attitude is completely different between each character. It comes as no suprise that Alec Guinness would go on to become an international film star working alongside David Lean in The Bridge on the River Kwai and on Lucas’ Star Wars. But if you were ever unsure about whether he could ‘do’ comedy, it is clear here that he can.
The super-suave serial killer Louis Mazzini and multi-role-playing of Alec Guinness are not the only aspects to take away from the film. The photography was directed by Douglas Slocombe, who had worked on multiple Ealing comedies including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit – both of which featured Alec Guinness. But Spielberg fans will recognise him more from his later credits in the first-three Indiana Jones adventures – in fact, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is his last film credit in 1989.
You can see from Kind Hearts and Coronets that the Ealing Studios clearly had something very special – stories with social and political talking points whilst casting actors who could not only play the required role, but also bring a personal touch that effortlessly ensures that the film remains timeless. I am sure that you could further explore the duality between the two love-interests of Louis Mazzini and clarify how the women may represent different social-classes – and the unique position Louis Mazzini is in as someone raised in poverty and yet, how he is desperately ambitious to work his way back into the family he had been removed from – but that would take the fun away from the sheer joy of watching the events play out to a finale that raises more questions than it answers.
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