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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Director: Robert Hamer
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1949

Background

As always, the Criterion essay and Wikipedia articles seem to have it all covered, and I’m stuck trying to re-shape that info into my own, less interesting, prose. Well, to start off, here’s an excerpt from a high school report card for Robert Hamer, director of today’s film: “His apparent cynicism did not mar an attractive and interesting character whose fault was a too quick temper, and whose merit an ability to recover good humor very quickly.”

Look, you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to connect the dots between that pithy assessment and Hamer’s masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets, a cruel and corrosively funny attack on Britain’s divisive class system.

Before making his masterpiece, however, Hamer (of course) went up to Cambridge for a degree in math. He even had some poetry published in an anthology; an anthology which also featured the work of Hamer’s classmate, notorious spy Donald Maclean. After being caught in flagrante delicto with a (male) classmate, Hamer was sent home in shame. He later married the minimally talented but beautiful actress Joan Holt, and they spent the years of their marriage engaged in loud, alcohol-fueled rows.

His first credited effort as a director was a section of the anthology horror film, Dead of Night (1945), in which “…a pleasant, bland young man is drawn into a dangerous past of violence and sexuality.” I don’t make this stuff up; I just copy it from the Internet.

Next, Hamer directed two Carné-style “poetic realist” films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). In both, traditional family values come under attack, but ultimately prevail. Finally, Hamer was ready to make Kind Hearts and Coronets, a film that, as he said, “paid no regard whatever to established, although not practiced, moral convention, in which a whole family is picked off by a mass murderer.”

Alec Guinness was originally offered four roles in the film. “I read [the screenplay] on a beach in France, collapsed with laughter on the first page, and didn’t even bother to get to the end of the script,” he recounted. “I went straight back to the hotel and sent a telegram saying, ‘Why four parts? Why not eight!?'”

Guinness remained a personal friend of Hamer’s, and appeared in three more of his films. “We spoke the same language and laughed at the same things,” he recalled in his autobiography. “He was finely tuned, full of wicked glee, and marvelous to actors—appreciative and encouraging.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets was widely lauded upon its release, and is consistently found on critic’s lists of the finest British films. Hamer’s later work, sadly, paled in comparison. “It’s flattering to make a picture which becomes a classic within ten years,” he observed, late in life. “It’s not so flattering, however, when people get the impression it’s the only picture you’ve ever made.” Robert Hamer drank prodigiously, and died of pneumonia at the age of 52.

Of note about the source material: Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on a book titled Israel Rank, which is the name of the (half-)Jewish main character. Of course, making a film featuring a Jewish serial killer decimating the ranks of the landed gentry was impossible in 1949, not to mention the fact that Ealing Studio films were distributed by the Rank Organization (chaired by J. Arthur Rank). Thus, the character in the film is (half-)Italian and renamed Louis Mazzini.

Synopsis

During the opening credits, over a background of lace doilies, we see the usual list of actors and their respective roles, but the last item is a bit odd: “Alec Guinness as The D’Ascoyne Family.” In Kind Hearts and Coronets, Obi Wan plays eight separate characters, including one woman.

The film opens in a dank British prison. Our hero, Louis D’Ascoyne, is to be executed upon the morrow (I’ve been waiting to use that phrase!). Mr. Elliott, the executioner, is coming to visit him in his cell. “Even after all my years in the profession, I’m quite looking forward to him,” Elliott muses. “Never had the privilege of hanging a duke…”

In the cell, Louis is writing his memoirs: “A brief history of the events leading thereto, written on the eve of his execution by Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, Tenth Count of Chalfont, who ventures to hope that it may prove not uninteresting to those who remain to read it…”

Thus are we plunged into the flashbacks that constitute the bulk of the film.

Louis was the product of an ill-fated marriage between an Italian opera-singing father and a high-born British mother. For marrying beneath her station, Louis’ mother is shunned by her family. When Louis’ father dies, his mother is “reduced to the horrible expedient of taking in a lodger.”

She writes to her family on Louis’ behalf, but her pleas go unanswered. “It’s very stupid of them not to admit your existence,” she remarks to her son, “when one day you might be Duke of Chalfont.” Problem: There are 12 people in line for the dukedom before Louis. Louis’ poor mama, in a moment of pique, wishes them dead.

Louis works in a dress shop until his mama dies. She wishes to be buried at Chalfont, but her family again refuses to acknowledge her. Louis is enraged: “Standing by Mama’s poor little grave in that hideous suburban cemetery, I made an oath that I would revenge the wrongs her family had done her.”

Destitute, Louis moves in with Dr. Hallward, father of Sibella, his childhood friend. He rises through the ranks at the dress shop, and eventually graduates to a bigger shop downtown. Meanwhile, he monitors the obituaries and births columns in the newspaper, keeping a watchful eye on those still standing in the way of his birthright.

“The advent of twin sons to the duke was a terrible blow. Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo almost immediately…”

He proposes to his childhood friend Sibella, but she has already accepted the proposal of the dull but rich Lionel.

Our down-at-the-heels hero has no chance against the wealthy Lionel, even if Lionel is a clod. “Well, when you are a duke, you just come and show me your crown, or whatever it’s called, and then I’ll feel awfully silly, won’t I?” Sibella taunts, laughing cruelly. Spurred on by Sibella’s rejection, Louis’ plan takes shape…

12 D’Ascoynes (the number is eventually reduced through natural attrition) must be dispatched, but how? “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms…”

To Louis’ astonishment, the first victim practically falls into his lap. Mr. Ascoyne D’Ascoyne comes to shop in Louis’ store, accompanied by his mistress. When Louis is not sufficiently deferential, Mr. D’Ascoyne calls the manager and has him fired. Louis follows the man and his mistress to their assignation at a resort in Maidenhead.

By the end of the weekend, there is a fatal boating accident, and Mr. Ascoyne D’Ascoyne is dead.

Realizing that Ascoyne’s death leaves an opening at the bank, Louis applies and is hired by LORD Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Louis’ cousin and the dead guy’s father).

While gradually ingratiating himself to his new employer, Louis selects his next victim: Henry D’Ascoyne, a meek (and secretly alcoholic) photographer. Louis purchases a second-hand camera and arranges an apparently unplanned meeting with Henry. “He seemed a very pleasant fellow, and I regretted that our acquaintanceship would be so short.”

After substituting petrol for the paraffin in Henry’s darkroom lamp, there is an unfortunate explosion, and the second obstacle is crossed off Louis’ list.

As Louis’ star rises, Sibella begins to regret her choice of a mate: “Oh Louis! I don’t want to marry Lionel! He’s so dull!”

At Henry’s funeral, Louis finally gets to see all of the remaining D’Ascoynes in one place, all played by Alec Guinness. Even the priest, apparently senile and rambling incoherently, is a D’Ascoyne.

“The D’Ascoynes certainly appeared to have accorded with the tradition of the landed gentry and sent the fool of the family into the church,” observes Louis.

Not only does Henry’s death remove one more obstacle to Louis’ birthright, it also leaves his beautiful (but priggish) wife Edith… a widow. Louis resolves to marry her, “…as soon as a reasonable period of mourning should have passed.”

In any case, Edith is a much more suitable wife for a (potential) duke than petulant, suburban Sibella.

After proving a trustworthy clerk at the bank, Louis is promoted to the position of Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne’s personal secretary and given a substantial raise, allowing him to move out of Sibella’s family’s house and into a bachelor apartment. Sibella, regretting her marriage terribly, continues to (ahem) visit Louis. “I think I’ve married the most boring man in London,” she confides in her childhood friend.

“I had not forgotten or forgiven the boredom of the sermon at young Henry’s funeral, and I decided to promote the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne to next place on the list…”

Louis visits the addle-brained Reverend in the guise of a fellow priest. Reverend D’Ascoyne treats Louis to an extended tour of the family church, providing many opportunities for his disjointed and insane commentary: “You will note that our chantry displays the crocketed and finialed ogee which marks it as very early perpendicular…”

Soon enough, some poison finds its way into the Reverend’s generous glass of port, and the dotty old man nods off painlessly.

On to the next victim: “Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne was a pioneer in the campaign for women’s suffrage, with the inconvenient consequence that her public appearances were invariably made under the watchful eyes of the metropolitan police.”

hearts_ladyagatha

Lady Agatha is also played by Alec Guinness, and she dies in a mysterious ballooning accident.

The stubborn and possibly mad Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne dies in a naval mishap.

General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne kicks it while digging a spoon into a rigged jar of caviar: “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the Crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.” BOOM.

With his succession to the dukedom seeming ever more assured, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne promotes Louis to a partnership at the bank. Emboldened, Louis proposes to Edith, Henry D’Ascoyne’s widow, but she refuses, still mourning the loss of her beloved alcoholic shutterbug.

Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Louis’ kindly employer, has a stroke without any intervention from Louis, and is given a month to live. This leaves only the Duke himself in Louis’ way.

Edith D’Ascoyne accepts Louis’ proposal, and Louis’ plan nears its fruition.

Things are complicated somewhat when Sibella’s dull husband Lionel begs Louis for a loan, threatening to commit suicide if he does not receive said loan. Louis refuses, a decision he will come to regret.

Things are further complicated when the Duke announces his plans to marry, in the hopes of fathering a litter of male heirs. This, needless to say, necessitates a speeding-up of Louis’ plans.

Within a few scenes, the Duke finds himself in a man-trap meant for poachers.

Louis stands just out of arm’s reach, holding a rifle.

“By the time anyone has heard the shot, I shall be running back toward the castle, shouting for help. I shall say that you stepped on the trap and that your gun went off accidentally as you fell… To spare you as much pain as possible, I’ll be brief. When I’ve finished, I shall kill you.”

Louis becomes the Duke, makes plans to marry Edith, and vows to be a good feudal lord to the vassals who live on the D’Ascoyne estate. At that moment, he is arrested for the murder of Sibella’s husband Lionel (who, ironically, he did not kill).

Sibella testifies against Louis, and he is handily convicted and sentenced to death.

Of course, there are multiple last-minute turnarounds, which I won’t reveal here. Suffice to say, Louis makes a bargain with the devil, which saves his life… or does it?

What I Liked

Kind Hearts is that rare black comedy/satire that (mostly) has the courage of its convictions: There is no last-act discovery of an essentially good heart underneath the veneer of venality. The main characters, desperate to climb the social ladder at all costs, become more vicious, more self-serving, more repellent by the minute, and the ending doesn’t cop out. (With one exception, which I’ll mention in the next section.)

Alec Guinness is marvelous as the eight D’Ascoynes; gruff and imperious as one character, meek and harmless as another, batty and doddering as another. Each of the characters he plays is a distinct, unique creation, made up of closely-observed mannerisms, speech patterns, physical bits of business… but he’s never over-the-top or cartoonish. Simply amazing.

The script, particularly some of Louis’ internal monologues are very funny in a literate, understated Oscar Wilde-ish British way; it was a delight just to listen to these characters speaking, quite apart from the devilish joys of the plot.

Cinematography, set design, music, performances by bit players: All excellent, as I’ve come to expect from these classic British films.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

A few weeks ago, we watched The Importance of Being Earnest, which featured an irritating actress named Joan Greenwood. To my consternation, she was also the actress playing Sibella in today’s film, and I found her just as teeth-gnashingly annoying this time around. She speaks in this strange parody of a pouty upper-class voice that is so contrived, so grotesquely mannered that I found every moment of her presence onscreen nearly unbearable. Seriously; it bothered me that much.

Also, as mentioned above, I want a pitch-black satire like this to stick to its guns; I don’t want any false redemption at the end, and I certainly don’t need any phony “yeah, killing rich assholes is fun and all, but, remember: CRIME DOESN’T PAY!” message to wrap things up. Sadly, a tacked-on ending requested by U.S. censors implies that our hero will eventually be punished for his misdeeds, which allows us to feel superior, which allows us not to worry about the fact that during the rest of the movie we’ve been cheering on a serial killer. Phony, like I said, and undermining the point of the satire.

To my point, here’s a quote from the original book, in which Israel/Louis muses upon this very question: “There is an old saying, ‘Murder will out.’ I am really unable to see why this should be so. I am convinced that many a delightful member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to remove a human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.”

Chilling and exactly right. But the tacked-on ending undercuts this bleak philosophy.

Finally, near the end, someone quotes that old “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, but in its original form (“Ten Little N*****s”). Yes, I understand that this film was made over a half-century ago, but still: the nursery rhyme is quoted several times in the final scenes, and it is ugly and painful to hear that word used so many times, so glibly (yes, kinda like that scene with QT in Pulp Fiction, Robin is reminding me). The main character even uses it to refer to the two women competing for his attention as “N*****s”. Ugh.

Should You See It?

Fans of amoral (well, that’s arguable; the actions portrayed in the film are amoral, but it is intended as a scathing attack on unprincipled social climbing and the murderous effects of classism, so in a sense, it’s very moral) black comedies should add Kind Hearts and Coronets to their Netflix queues immediately. Also, if you’re a fan of classic 40’s/50’s British films, or of the Ealing comedies, or of Alec Guinness: Yup.

If the plot as described above makes you understandably queasy, or if the use of that ugly nursery rhyme in the final scenes would ruin the experience for you, then no.

Next: Knife in the Water

2 Comments

  1. Do you know where I can buy the British version; or rather, the version with the British ending?

  2. I will admit I think I’ve seen all of three Alec Guinness films (counting all three “Star Wars” as one film). “Stars Wars Trilogy,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and, sadly, “Raise the Titanic.” I can’t recall if he was in “I’m All Right Jack” and I have “The Ladykillers” (haven’t watched it) so it’s a tad blurry there, but I was glad to get “Kind Hearts and Coronets” to expand on my “AG Repertoire.”

    The other observation I have with “KHAC” is in regards to laughs. You’ve heard the descriptive words: “Guffaw,” “Chortle,” “Snicker.” These are your onnomanapea (sic?) words. Words that are written as they sound.

    The story is a black comedy about the revenge of a gentleman who is not getting his rightful “Dukeness” in the lineage of his family. Brought up by a single mother who has been abandoned by her family, he slowly exacts revenge on all the members of the family – finally achieving his rightful place in the family lineage.

    Along the way he falls in love with a gal named Sibella, who marries the “boringest man in the world” and “Lady something-or-other” – the wife of one of the man he dispatches.

    Told in flashbacks as he is awaiting his hanging, the Duke lets it all out in his memoirs about how he has systematically killed them all. We then see, in sort of an “Ealing Studios” version of “Kill Bill” his murderous rampage (well, rampage if you consider pushing a boat over some falls, placing a bomb in a container of cavaiar, poisoning an elderly priest who already was suffering from a weak heart…etc).

    The film is very funny in a “chortle” sort of way. I did not find many guffaws and there certainly weren’t many (to me at least) “laugh out loud moments” but I must say I was grinning from ear-to-ear as he took out his revenge.

    And, I must say, this was a film that I would also deem as “clever.” As much as “Importance of Being Earnest” tried so damn hard to be clever (and came out annoying as hell) – I felt the writers and the situations of both the overall silly plot and deaths were very clever.

    But back to Alec Guinness. I knew going in to the film that he was in the film and then, finally, I said: “Oh, there he is.” And then, after that relative was sent to his death thought: “Boy, he wasn’t in the film long.” Then he was in the next scene as a DIFFERENT relative. I had not realized that this was Alec Guinness doing his best Peter Sellars and playing multiple roles (8 in fact). He was spot on perfect in each one. So good in fact that there were moments when I didn’t realize it was him until half-way through the scene.

    I found this film to be very fun indeed, certainly not a waste of time but also not a film that’s going to stick with you much after you’re done watching it.

    What I liked:

    Alec Guinness x 8.

    The cleverness of the dialogue and the way the people were “dispatched.”

    The way the main character (name escapes me) continues to have you root for him even while he’s getting more and more enjoyment out of each killer.

    What I didn’t like:

    There wasn’t much to dislike about the film, other than that there’s really no subtext or “deep meaning” or any other thing like that. It’s a black comedy in the truest sense of the word (or words).

    I do agree with Jason on the rhyme at the end which I, too, found a bit disturbing in its time and place and frankness.

    Bottom line:

    Enjoyable film. Don’t look for depth or reasoning or lasting impressions. Not a lot of “guffaws” but certainly a lot of “chortles” and “snickers.”

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