Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: June 21st, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Robert Hamer Actors: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Audrey Fildes, John Penrose, Hugh Griffith

 


 

I

n the early 1900s in London, nobleman Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) finishes his memoirs in prison, the night before he is to be hanged. His calmness is unnerving to the guards; his voice is unwavering and steady as he narrates a flashback to his upbringing. His mother is cheated out of her birthright after eloping with an opera singer and marrying beneath her status; the royal D’Ascoyne family wants nothing to do with her or her son, even though he is entitled to the dukedom of Chalfont. The catch is that there are at least twelve people already in line for the label. As a result, the trio is forced to live like commoners (his father dies shortly after his birth), although his mother sends him to the best schools she can afford.

When her son reaches adulthood and is in need of a career, he is disappointingly ignored by his ancestry; and yet again, when his dying mother wishes to be buried with her distant family. Enraged and vengeful, Louis fantasizes about lethally pruning the family tree – a grand revenge and mass murder that could put him at the top of the list for aristocracy. Passing the years as a drapery assistant, he carefully researches and observes as the D’Ascoyne family dwindles from members passing away and grows with new births (sinisterly tracked on a chart pasted on the back of a picture hanging in his room). Even his true love, Sibella (Joan Greenwood) denies him until he can actually become a duke. And so he sets about plotting the demise of every D’Ascoyne in his way, gradually ingraining himself in the family’s businesses and affairs, to get closer to his targets for the plotting of untimely demises.

The cinematography has a distinct film noir look to it, despite being primarily a dry comedy – which matches the dark themes overshadowing the subtle hilarities. Though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the central, most humorous stratagem is employing Alec Guinness to play every role in the D’Ascoyne lineage. Makeup and costuming exaggerate various physical and facial differences and ages in the characters, highlighted by Guinness’ turn as Lady Agatha – it’s undeniably hysterical to see the renowned actor in drag. Smartly, the film doesn’t rely solely on this novel gimmick. Instead, supporting roles by Valerie Hobson as Edith, the wife of Henry D’Ascoyne, and Greenwood, whose Sibella character continues to see Louis even after she abandons him for a wealthier beau, play important parts. Even Price gets to don is own disguises, adopting various outfits and manners to seduce or befriend the people he plans to murder.

The narration is splendidly wry and full of details, revealing dastardly intentions and acerbic observations, all with an air of proper nobility and politeness over frankness. The scheming plays out like “The Count of Monte Cristo,” with Mazzini embracing uncommon patience and little care for speed in carrying out each assassination. His legwork is exhaustive and the string of suspiciously coincidental tragedies remains fitting and witty. In the end, it’s an inevitable Waterloo of sorts for the antihero, considering the story began with his incarceration and looming execution. By the time he accedes to the dukedom and a lengthy and ironic trial commences (his encounter with the law isn’t related to one of the many D’Ascoyne deaths), the pacing has suffered tremendously, dragging on the less amusing elements of blackmail and deceit. However, the satire is original and clever and the climax and final shot are simply priceless. In many ways, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is the epitome of British theatrical comedy.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10