Kind Hearts and Coronets
Over Christmas we watched the classic Ealing film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” – the best comedic murder yarn ever filmed.
First released in 1949 it stars Dennis Price as Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini who murders – with great style and originality – eight members of the D’Ascoyne family (played with considerable fun by Alec Guinness), thereby inheriting a dukedom and avenging his mother who was excluded from the ducal family for making a scandalous marriage.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen “Kind Hearts and Coronets” – the first many decades ago as a child – but I’ve always loved it. It is for me the very best of the Ealing Comedies, superbly acted and wittily scripted by Robert Hamer, who also directed, and John Dighton.
Now a word of warning: if you get the American version you lose a good six minutes of the film compared to the British original, and have to suffer a ridiculous changed ending! – the Hays Office censorship department apparently having had a sense of humour bypass on some of the issues within. So seek out the British version. This original is 106 minutes long. This is one film that triumphs by being a tad politically incorrect. It is after all about advantageous murder.
The film has interesting origins in a long-forgotten novel called “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman. In the film Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini is half-Italian. In the book he is Jewish. Occasionally you will see suggestions – usually by critics who haven’t actually read it – that the novel is anti-Semitic. Actually it isn’t. It’s a clever and biting satire on the way that Edwardian society regarded Jews. However, in the aftermath of World War Two it is understandable why the producers wanted to distance themselves from the subtleties of the original text – which is darker in tone than the screenplay.
In the film the satire is aimed fairly and squarely at the silly and illogical British class system. Louis Mazzini begins his climb to be duke of Chalfont from a position as a put-upon shop assistant, despite the fact that he’s related to a titled family.
Alec Guinness rightly gets a lot of credit for his bravura series of performances as male and female members of the D’Ascoyne family. But Dennis Price always hold his own as Louis, with a witty delivery of lines that shows what a very considerable and underrated actor he was. Despite the questionable morality of his actions, he never loses the audiences’ sympathy. Price makes you empathise with the character’s motivations at all times.
“Kind Hearts and Coronets” has a wonderful supporting cast of great actors. Louis’s two love interests are played by Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood – both giving studied performances of great skill. You can quite see why Louis is torn between their affections.
Even the minor characters are wonderful examples of character acting; Miles Malleson as the hangman determined to retire having hanged a duke because he would never be able to use a hempen rope having once used silk! And Arthur Lowe in just one scene as a reporter from the magazine “Tit-Bits” – for which I once wrote – desperate to acquire Louis’s salacious memoirs.
The film is shot in beautiful black and white and is all the better for that. Colour would quite ruin the mood. The photography is quite wonderful and the settings superb.
And the title? It comes of course from Tennyson’s lines: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.”
Which sums it all up really.
A great film for these dark winter evenings.
A Happy New Year to all readers of Gaslight Crime.