To become a duke, one man decides to murder anyone in his family tree standing in his way.  From beginning to end, Kind Hearts and Coronets delivers a stream of literary perfection.  Numerous murders take place with great inventiveness, despite little-to-no special effects, demonstrating a high form of creativity and proficient film-making.  Never has such a dark plot been so delightful to watch.

The Players:

  • Director:  Robert Hamer
  • Writer:  Roy Horniman, Robert Hamer, John Dighton
  • Cast: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, John Penrose

Notes:

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is the son of a noblewoman who is disowned by the D’Ascoynes  family when she marries for love and not for rank or money.  Condemned to a life of poverty, she lives with her Italian opera-singing husband until he dies immediately after Louis is born.  Louis grows up without much hope for success or wealth, despite being the 10th duke of his mother’s family.  Meanwhile, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), the girl that Louis loves, ridicules his proposal for marriage and decides instead to marry Lionel (John Penrose), a former schoolmate from a wealthy family.  Having been taught all his life about his lineage and angered further by recent events, Louis decides to eliminate all nine D’Ascoynes members standing between him and what he views as his rightful inheritance.

Although Louis’ motives are reprehensible at their core, murdering his way to the top, we enjoy his journey and his progression into becoming a man of means.  In flashback, we see him go from being a clerk in a drapery shop to a clerk in a respected bank.  His goal is to become a duke, and he’s determined to regain his birthright.  We watch intently as Louis plots ways to force encounters with each successive victim of the D’Ascoyne family.  He waits with patience for the perfect opportunities, and positions himself strategically close to his victims before making each kill.  Director Robert Hamer lends his narrative with great pacing and a surprisingly economical style of editing.  There are scenes where action and voiceover feel as fresh and efficient as anything you’d see in a more modern film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the top 5 British films and has to be the best black comedy I’ve ever seen.  People often think of Dr. Strangelove as the best black comedy, but Kind Hearts and Coronets is not only hysterical, it’s language and humor is biting, poetic and as precise as the murder plot that Louis executes.  There are quotable lines to spare and laugh-out-loud moments that explode like a stick of dynamite in caviar .  Dennis Price is convincing in his role – we not only forgive him despite his dark intentions, we accept him.   His composure and politeness are effectively contrasted with dark thoughts and murder plots.  The plots themselves are inventive and add much to the comedy as a whole.  And equally masterful, if not more, than anything else in the film is Alex Guinness, who seamlessly portrays 8 different members of the D’Ascoynes family, including a female.  Before Peter Sellers and long before Eddie Murphy, Guinness shows a great level of range within one movie.  He adds something unique enough to each character that viewers might easily fail to detect that they’re all played by the same actor.  With such great writing and acting, you get a movie that just about reaches perfection.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

That you dedicate the first two paragraphs to Alex Guinness in your review is understandable  He played such a variety of characters that we can only admire that each character he played felt like a “newly-minted original”.  By playing eight characters here, Guinness pulls off an impressive feat.  And as you point out, this is partially due to the help of Hamer, who shoots mostly in long and medium shots in order to avoid potentially revealing closeups.  But this doesn’t take away from Guinness in any way, as he succeeds where many others might have failed. There are few films with a more effective use of voice-over.  And despite the fact that Kind Hearts and Coronets is unusually dependent on voice-over narration, its ability to be objective and understated is what makes this film all the more hysterical and memorable.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GREAT

Do you like Kind Hearts and Coronets?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Floating Weeds

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets this week, he now has 297 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.