Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Hamer and John Dighton, based on the novel “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman
Stars: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness
The Story: In this blackest of black comedies, an heiress marries for love and gets disowned, but she remains obsessed with the idea that her son is 12th in line for a dukedom. After her death, the son decides that there’s nothing to be done but kill off all the family members separating him from his rightful station.
How it Came to be Underrated: Though this isn’t the first time he’s been featured here, Hamer’s name is mostly forgotten today, partially because he died young, so anyone watching all the “great films by the great directors” would never run across this one. It’s actually quite beloved, but still not the household name in this country that it deserves to be.
Why It’s Great:
- Though he’s fourth-billed, the movie is handily stolen by Guinness, who became an instant star by playing all 8 members of the same family that get killed off by Price. Though you would expect him to camp it up, he instead invests each of these inbred lords and ladies with enough dignity to pull against the satire and give the movie some strong moral tension.
- Stories of Victorian England are all about class, of course, but usually deal with those who try and fail to make their peace with the arbitrary hierarchy that pigeonholes them for life. How refreshing to finally see an ahead-of-his-time protagonist who reacts the same way we would to all this madness: with a fine murderous rage.
- That said, he does kill an awful lot of people, so how do you keep him sympathetic? I’ve noticed that one thing that many false quest movies have in common, from Psycho to The Godfather to Wall Street, is a misguided attempt to please (sometimes posthumously) a disappointed parent. Apparently audiences will sympathize with any amount of criminality if that is the underlying motive.
- It’s amazing how well this movie works, given that it’s so novelistic. It’s got wall-to-wall narration, it follows the protagonist from cradle to grave, and has multiple plotlines that don’t always intersect. A major subplot involves Price’s love for a faithless coquette played with a delightfully wicked languor by Joan Greenwood, who gets to wear the most wonderfully silly hats in movie history.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Guinness made a lot of great comedies for the Ealing studio. Two other great ones were The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob.
How Available Is It?: It has an excellent Criterion Collection DVD.
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