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With: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Audrey Hepburn
Written by: John Dighton, Robert Hamer, T.E.B. Clarke, etc.
Directed by: Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Alexander Mackendrick
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 450
Date: 18/03/2013

Alec Guinness: 5-Film Collection (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Brit Pack

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Alec Guinness: 5-Film Collection on DVD.

Anchor Bay released this exact same five-film collection in 2001, and now Lionsgate has re-packaged it, using all the same transfers and bonus features, but placing them in new, slenderer case. Today, Alec Guinness is primarily known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), and perhaps some cinephiles know him for his six films with director David Lean, notably his Oscar-winning turn in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). But hardcore fans love these early comedies -- each a work of genius -- produced at Ealing studios in the 1950s. The films generally run less than 90 minutes, and they each move with a snappy, clever pace. The general formula starts each film with a kicker of a set-up, and then flashes back to the story of how things got that way, and then finishes things off with a wicked twist.

In both chronological and alphabetical order, the box starts off with a masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer. In the film, Dennis Price stars as a duke who narrates the tale. Due to his mother's controversial marriage, his family won't recognize his royal status. So he takes it upon himself to kill off all eight royals who stand in his way. In a masterstroke of casting, each of the eight is played by Alec Guinness. Hamer actually manages to tell a funny and convincing tale without relying too much on this gimmick. (See my longer review).

Guinness returned with a leading role in the wonderful The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to make A Fish Called Wanda). Guinness plays a meek bank clerk who supervises a weekly transfer of gold. After years of frustration he finally cooks up a plan to steal it by melting it into little souvenir Eiffel Towers. Of course, everything goes comically, brilliantly wrong. Look for Audrey Hepburn, not yet a big star, in a tiny role.

The box also contains Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit (1951), in which Guinness plays a feverish inventor, working innocuous jobs in textile mills so that he can sneak into their laboratories to work on his invention: a completely stain-resistant, wear-resistant fabric. Unfortunately, instead of changing the world, he discovers that the garment industry as a whole wants to suppress his product. Mackendrick directs with a keen eye on shadows and spaces for more pronounced comic effect.

Mackendrick also directed The Ladykillers (1955), the only film in the set to be shot in color. Guinness plays a bank robber who takes a room with an old lady and must convince her that he and his hooligan friends are actually rehearsing musicians. (The Coen brothers remade this film in 2004, starring Tom Hanks, with little success.)

As a bonus, Anthony Kimmins' The Captain's Paradise (1953) is available only in this box set. (Though viewers can probably find used copies of the 2001 disc.) In it, Guinness plays a captain who commands a ferryboat between Gibraltar and Tangier. He keeps a girl in each port: one is a fiery, sexy party girl who can dance but can't cook (Yvonne De Carlo), and the other is a homebody who fetches the captain's slippers and puts him to bed by 10 p.m. (Celia Johnson). The captain has supposedly found the key to paradise with this situation, but of course, there's a twist. This is arguably the least of the five films, given the talent of the secondary director Kimmins, but it's still filled with amusing stuff.

Each disc comes in a glorious, too-good-to-be-true black-and-white transfer (except The Ladykillers, which looks fine in color), and each contains a full biography and filmography of the late, great actor.

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