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With: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Audrey Fildes
Written by: Robert Hamer, John Dighton, based on a novel by Roy Horniman
Directed by: Robert Hamer
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 106
Date: 21/06/1949
IMDB

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

In the Lineage of Fire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Kind Hearts and Coronets on DVD

Ealing Studios was originally established to represent the best and most upright of British values. When that led to a series of boring, financially disastrous films, they tried comedies about characters with low moral fiber and came up with a series of classics that endures to this day. Those classic titles included Charles Crichton's Hue and Cry (1947) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), the latter remade in 2004 by the Coen Brothers. For the record, the studio also made the masterful episodic horror film, Dead of Night (1945) that is still a beloved cult classic. But easily the most beloved and durable film from the Ealing stable is Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Though Anchor Bay Entertainment previously released the film on a very good DVD in 2002, an extraordinary new two-disc edition from the Criterion Collection should inspire viewers to upgrade.

Based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, adapted by Hamer and John Dighton, the film concerns one Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a man born with royal blood. Due to a scandal -- he was sired after his mother ran off with a lowly Italian musician -- the family refuses to recognize his heritage, or even his existence. When his mother dies, Louis vows to restore himself to his rightful place by murdering the entire line of the D'Ascoyne family, eight of them, so that he'll be next in line for the Dukedom. In a masterstroke of casting, Alec Guinness plays all eight D'Ascoynes -- including the prim, troublemaking activist Lady Agatha (decades before the women's lib movement). Guinness is so brutally impressive at this feat that he often eclipses poor Price; anytime anyone mentions Kind Hearts and Coronets, Guinness gets the spotlight.

Certainly, Guinness' achievement belongs on any list of the greatest film performances. But we should not underestimate Price, who manages to balance his grim mission with a sense of moral correctness; he even manages to snatch a bit of audience sympathy. We should also remember the rest of the amazing cast. Joan Greenwood, especially, shines as Sibella, who cruelly spurns Louis' initial offer of marriage, then crawls back to him when her preferred partner turns out to be a loser. She has a cooing way of speaking that makes her sexy and proper, slightly dim but surprisingly cunning. She brings a surprising eroticism to the film in a time (the 1940s) and place (England) that traditionally avoided such things. It's also easy to overlook the achievements of Hamer, who died in his prime with only about a dozen films on his resume. Many critics accused him of simply filming the text with no consideration for visual flair. But making movies takes more than setting up pretty shots. Hamer assembled a comedy out of so many disparate pieces -- or, in the case of Guinness, one piece used many times -- found an appropriate and effective pace, and created a comedy that was not only funny in its day, but one that has stood the test of time. Its many moral layers allow it to stand up to many viewings, even after the "jokes" have become familiar. Only a few comedy filmmakers over the past century have managed such a feat.

DVD Details: As for the new DVD, the picture and sound is only slightly improved over the Anchor Bay Edition; only serious technology nerds will be able to spot or care about the difference. The new disc also lacks the optional French-dubbed track from the previous release, but this new one includes optional English subtitles for the first time. The real reason to pick up the Criterion disc is the extras, of which there were few on the previous release. We get an explanation of the American ending, which is included here separately, and thankfully has not been seen for some time. According to the Hays Code, murderers weren't allowed to get away with their crimes, even ambiguously as in the British ending. A photo gallery rounds out Disc One. Disc Two continues with two treasures: a 70-minute 1977 television interview with Guinness and a feature-length BBC documentary about the history of Ealing Studios. Made in the 1980s, the doc interviews many of its practitioners who were still alive (though unfortunately Hamer was long gone). Finally, a liner notes essay by film critic Philip Kemp sheds new light on the film's history and achievements. But don't let all this seriousness stop you from enjoying a brilliantly good comedy.

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