At the Movies

Michael Wood

Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets was first released in 1949, and the current celebratory showings in various London cinemas are more than welcome. There is something a little odd, though, in associating this film in any close way with ordinary, consecutive time. It was elegantly old before it was born, and it hasn’t got any older. It is based on a 1907 novel, which it occasionally quotes. ‘I am not naturally callous,’ a murderer says in both works, inviting us to sympathise with him for regrettably having to kill two people in order to dispose of one. And in both works, the same fellow stylishly explains why any man would need a mistress and a wife: ‘I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella. I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith.’

But then these thoughts seem ready for time travel in any direction, and the ostensibly Edwardian London of the postwar film is not really a place at all. It is a pastiche of a reverse fairy tale, where everything goes impeccably right until it goes neatly wrong; where everyone has the witty lines mere humans only dream of. When did you last hear of a historical hangman who decided he would retire when he completed his current task, because ‘after using the silken rope’ required for a duke, he could ‘never again be content with hemp’? Asked how he manages to be so calm on the eve of his death, our murderer says: ‘Dr Johnson was, as always, right when he observed: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a few hours, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”’ This is Edwardian enough, perhaps, or ‘Edwardian’ enough, but when the same man quotes from The Beggar’s Opera (1728) at the end of the film, comparing his plight to that of Macheath because two women are waiting for him when he escapes execution, he simply seems to be the old rogue’s contemporary and might almost be singing to the tune of a popular song, as his predecessor was:

How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away!

Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank is funny in a slightly bluff sort of way. Its narrator-killer can’t see any basis for the adage that ‘murder will out.’ It can’t be proved by the fact that ‘certain criminals’ have been clumsy. Surely ‘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.’ The word ‘obstacle’ is wonderfully sinister here, and it is used in the film too, where the murderer speaks of ‘remaining minor obstacles’. But the film is dandyish where the book is cynical, and the lightness of touch of both director and actors is amazing.

‘Was Lord Tennyson far from the mark,’ Valerie Hobson asks as Edith, the wife of one of the few amiable members of the D’Ascoyne family, ‘when he wrote: “Kind hearts are more than coronets,/And simple faith than Norman blood”?’ The film suggests that Lord Tennyson was not only far from the mark but off the wall. It’s true that coronets are not everything. There is also money, but that’s it. Dennis Price as Louis, a distant relative of the aristocrats all played by Alec Guinness (eight roles plus another cameo in a flashback), doesn’t at first take his mother’s fantasies seriously. She married beneath her rank, and had to live in Clapham rather than the family castle, but still dreams that one day Louis will re-enter the magical high world. Louis is telling us a lot of this in voice-over – that is, reading aloud from the memoir he has written in prison, and Hamer is dramatising the scenes.

There are brilliant macabre events from the start. Louis didn’t get to know his father, an Italian tenor also played by Dennis Price, complete with whiskers and floppy handkerchief, because he died the day the child was born or, in Louis’s words, ‘succumbed to a heart attack at the moment of first setting eyes on me’. Was the man shocked by an astral vision of his son’s future, or does Louis like to believe his lethal career began at birth? The death of Louis’s mother is also perfectly pitched for this land of class and money. She couldn’t afford a new pair of glasses and therefore didn’t see the vehicle that ran her over. Louis writes to the D’Ascoynes to ask if she might be buried in the family vault, and the refusal he receives starts his career as social avenger.

The career takes off in earnest, though, in one of the film’s greatest scenes (it’s tempting to say that all the great scenes involve Price as Louis and Joan Greenwood as his beautiful, slinky friend Sibella). She is about to marry the dreadful Lionel because he has money, and in spite of his being, as she later says, the most boring man in Europe. Louis asks her to marry him instead, and she laughs, and says: ‘Of course not.’ When Louis says he might be a duke some day, she says, ‘Pigs might fly,’ and then: ‘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?’ Louis tells us that ‘if there was a precise moment at which my insubstantial dreaming took on a solid purpose, that was it.’ It’s interesting that the word ‘obstacle’ shows up here too: ‘The D’Ascoynes had not only wronged my mother, they were the obstacle between me and all that I wanted.’

Well, they were several obstacles: a playboy, Edith’s photographer husband, a vicar, a suffragette, an admiral, a general, a banker and the current duke. Two of them die without Louis’s help, and Louis’s career as a killer develops astonishingly from his at first merely taking advantage of a chance opportunity to his later creation of elaborate works of art. His best feats perhaps are his killing of Lady Agatha, the suffragette, and of the ancient vicar, bumped off out of dynastic sequence because Louis decides his being so boring qualifies him for early dismissal. Agatha is distributing leaflets from a flying balloon. Louis punctures it with a shot from a bow and murmurs his own adaptation of a famous line from Longfellow: ‘I shot an arrow in the air/She fell to earth in Berkeley Square.’ For his visit to the vicar – he will poison his port, Cockburn ’69, a very good year – Louis assumes the guise of a bishop from Matabeleland visiting his colonial hearth to do a few brass rubbings. The murder seems almost incidental to Louis’s delight in the impersonation.

It’s a fine touch that Louis finally gets into trouble because, in spite of all his style and wit, he is caught off guard by a joke. The scene involves Sibella again. He is having an affair with her, and planning to marry Edith when Sibella says: ‘All your cousins seem to get killed. I really wouldn’t be in the least surprised if you had murdered them all.’ Louis spills his drink, then recovers. He picks up the joke, and says, ‘I did murder them all,’ and Sibella, pretending not to have seen what she has seen, says: ‘I’ve suspected it for a long time.’ From then on, though, she is calling the shots, and kind hearts are further than ever from any sort of deal anyone could make.

I keep wondering how the film manages to stay so light in spite of the notional black comedy of its plot. I think it has something to do with the sense of being out of time that I mentioned earlier: not timeless, but resistant to time. The film is about ingenuity and pleasure taking over from need, and this goes for its casting as well as its story. How could Alec Guinness die in any of his roles if he always has to come back for another, and will in any case make another movie after this one: The Lavender Hill Mob, for example, or The Man in the White Suit, both released in 1951? It’s not that the deaths don’t work at the level of narrative, or that Guinness’s renderings of the various D’Ascoynes – at one point they appear together at a funeral – are all the same. The difference he brings to each instance is remarkably delicate. But the deaths and the differences give us such pleasure that, as we watch the movie, for an hour and forty-five minutes or so, we feel almost as immortal as these fictions are.