Sunday, 15 February 2015
Revisiting Kind Hearts: Cineastic Bliss
I was already slipping into a state of cineastic bliss - and then came the opening scene. Miles Malleson - he of the receding chin and clerical air (he was Dr Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest) - playing the hangman, arriving at the prison, removing his top hat, signing in, and looking forward with relish to the prospect of using the silken rope, for this was to be the climax of his career: he was hanging a Duke! And then we see the Duke, sitting in his cell, wonderfully insouciant in a smoking jacket, whiling away what will likely be his last night on Earth by writing a memoir of his recent activities.
These have, as anyone who's ever heard of the film will know, consisted largely of an ambitious programme of bumping off every member of the D'Ascoyne family who stands between him and the Dukedon - for his mother was a D'Ascoyne, disowned and cruelly treated by the family. Each of these D'Ascoyne murderees is, famously, played by Alec Guinness in a bravura display of actorly versatility. The funniest of them is perhaps the Rev Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, the tippling, long-winded Parson - 'I always say that my West Window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.'
The whole air of the piece is consciously artificial and the murders are farcical, hygienically unreal and farcically easily achieved. This is high comedy, but very black comedy - indeed a serial killer comedy (50 years before Dexter) - but it retains just enough moral structure never to be quite cynical. Even today the laughs it provokes are often of the gasping, jaw-dropped kind - and it is extraordinary how little about this film has dated (only the accents of the leading ladies really).
Kind Hearts and Coronets is brilliantly edited and briskly told, with a beautifully written script rich in layered irony that keeps the twists and surprises coming right to the closing seconds of the film. But one thing above all makes it stand out, makes it indeed a comic masterpiece - and that is Denis Price's utterly mesmerising performance as the suave, self-contained killer Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini. He is quite devilishly attractive, with a presence and quality that effortlessly dominate every scene he's in. And boy, is he a dresser - every outfit seems to have been put together with the care of a Beau Brummel and is worn with the perfect posture and elegant movements such outfits demand. The costume design - and the production design as a whole - of this film are quite wondrous, giving it just the right ornate, stagey, dream-Edwardian look. Even the staging and lighting of the outdoor scenes is exquisitely picturesque - and the hats worn by Joan Greenwood's Sibella (Louis's love object and nemesis) are a comedy subplot in themselves.
But it is Price's performance above all that makes this film a classic. It is surely one of the most brilliant star turns in British cinema. How sad that he never did anything else that came up to this level - though his Jeeves to Ian Carmichael's Wooster in the Sixties TV series was very fine, in its smaller way.
Kind Hearts and Coronets keeps on giving right to the very end - and in more ways than one. The reporter from Tit Bits who approaches Louis outside the prison is none other than Arthur Lowe. From Miles Malleson to Arthur Lowe... If you're thinking of watching Kind Hearts again, do! And if you've never seen it, I envy you.