Starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood
On the eve of his execution, Louis Mazzini (Price) writes an account of the events that led him to be sitting on Death Row. Growing up with the knowledge that his mother was the estranged heir of the D’Ascoyne family, Louis has been simmering with anger over the way the family disowned her, and decides to kill those that stand between him and the Duke D’Ascoyne title.
Ealing Studios has a reputation for it’s “gentle” comedies, but in fact they tend to be rather dark affairs (see also The Ladykillers). “Kind Hearts” is actually a rather dry account of homicide, adultery and blackmail, while the comedy is derived from Alec Guiness, who takes on the eight separate roles of the D’Ascoyne family. Without those performances, the film would be very dark indeed.
It’s not Guinness who is the focus of the film, rather Dennis Price as the sympathetic killer. The film is able to build up the audience’s sympathies by documenting his misplaced childhood and the life he’s missed out on thanks to the D’Ascoynes having ostracised his mother when she eloped with an opera singer.
The problem with this is that it is quite slow and very dry thanks to the stylised dialogue and Price’s delivery of the narration. However we do get an interesting snapshot in time of the archaic operation of a department store. Things finally pick up when Alec Guiness finally makes an appearance, as Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, a louche playboy who looks down upon just about everybody. Overhearing Ascoyne’s conversation with his lover, Louis follows the pair to their weekend getaway. Here we get another anachronistic scene as we see the weekenders wearing their straw boaters and striped blazers.
Its interesting that Louis manages to keep in our sympathies, especially as he isn’t concerned about collateral damage – the murder of Ascoyne also involves the death of his lover. Nevertheless he does, and we stay by his side as he plans his next murder.
In planning to kill his next target, the benevolent Henry D’Ascoyne, Louis meets and is very taken by his wife, Edith (Hobson). In fact, Louis is very open with her about his identity and his relationship to the D’Ascoynes. Meanwhile, Louis has embarked on an affair with his childhood friend Sibella (Greenwood). Sibella is a vainglorious woman who married for money and status, realising too late that her husband Lionel is a total bore. Nevertheless, she still would have chosen Lionel over Louis every time.
As Louis culls his way through the D’Ascoynes (his methods include death by darkroom, poisoned port, crashed balloon), he starts to court Edith with the aim of proposing to her. Of course, he is still continuing his affair with Sibella, who proves to be more intelligent than most, with a sly observation on the number of deaths in the D’Ascoyne family.
Louis’ social position improves also with his murderous journey, as he works for one of the elderly D’Ascoynes in a private bank, finally finding himself as a partner, to the point that he can actually propose to Edith on equal social standing. Announcing his engagement sets into action two things – an invitation to the D’Ascoyne estate and the scheming machinations of Sibella.
Ironically, Louis all but gets away with his string of murders. He is actually arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and finds himself at the mercy of Sibella, who hits him with a nasty proposition. He agrees, but secretly hasn’t made up his mind. It is here that perhaps audience sympathy with Louis might falter.
The ending is in keeping with the dark tongue in cheek nature of Ealing comedies but apparently proved too ambiguous for the American censors at the time, so an extra 10 seconds of footage were added, which suggest more implicitly that Louis is still in hot water.
The alternative ending is included on Optimum’s excellent blu ray, along with a wealth of other informative extras including an introduction by John Landis, a BBC Radio 3 “essay” and audio commentary.
Although a bit dry to begin with this eventually warms up and becomes a deliciously dark tale.
7 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
Optimum Releasing's Blu Ray of
Kind Hearts and Coronets
will be released in the UK on 5th September. Before that however, the newly restored film will also be given a limited cinema release, beginning 19th August. Check your local listings for details.
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