Cover of DVD
By Carter B. Horsley
Kind Hearts and Coronets is the quintessential British comedy film of devastatingly and deadly humor with the incomparable Alex Guiness playing only 8 roles, all the victims of Louis Ascoyne Manzini, a very proper and elegant serial murderer.
It begins with a slow pace, documenting Louis's birth, his father's concerts as a singer, his courtship of the sexy, sultry, sly and smiling Sibila, his childhood sweetheart, and his mother's seven-foot-long family tree on a roll of paper.
portrayed by Dennis Price, the murderer is a nattily attired,
well-educated and spoken man with a wicked sense of humor, and a
definite fondness for remarkably sexy women, one the epitome of a
coquette and the other of prim virtue. He also likes to keep
records and his memoir in jail probably will lead to a downfall..., but
we are distracted by his dilemma of choosing his true sweetheart,
long 2006 essay accompanying the DVD version of this film, Philip Kemp
which is so surprising, given that Kind
Coronets was created by the maverick Robert Hamer, of all Ealing
one who found it hardest to conform to the studio’s upbeat, wholesome
And unlike Alexander Mackendrick, Ealing’s other great maverick
never had the patience—or the cunning—to slip his subversive notions
work under the guise of innocuous comedy. Hamer openly fought for his
and, in the cautious atmosphere of post–World War II British cinema,
prevailing mode of filmmaking at Ealing—still, half a
century after its demise, the most famous of all British film
largely the creation of production head Michael Balcon, who ran it as a
benevolent autocracy. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants,
fervently patriotic, left-liberal in politics, and prudish in sexual
When, in 1955, Ealing was sold to the BBC, Balcon had a plaque placed
studio wall that read: 'Here, during a quarter of a century, many films
contrast, Hamer’s instincts drew him toward dramatic
confrontation, the irreconcilable clash of motives and emotions. Kind Hearts
and Coronets, his most accomplished film, not only traces the
working out of a
ruthless program of personal vengeance but mounts a sustained attack on
conventional morality and the institution of the family, both of which
cause to detest.
was born in 1911, into a prosperous, respectable Welsh
landowning family....At ...
most clearly distinguishes Kind
Hearts and Coronets
from its Ealing stablemates—and what most alarmed Michael Balcon about
its language and tone, for which the film’s original source material
at least some of the credit. Hamer had found an Edwardian novel, Israel Rank,
by Roy Horniman—originally published in 1907 and reprinted in 1946,
long after Horniman’s
death—and was at once struck by its cinematic potential.
sometimes suggested that Israel Rank
is a feeble book,
and anti-Semitic. Neither is true. Horniman’s novel is light, witty,
entertaining, written in an aphoristic sub-Wildean style. (In his
to the 1946 edition, Hugh Kingsmill hints that Horniman was gay.) Above
this is undoubtedly what appealed to Hamer—it expresses an amused
conventional morality. Here’s Israel Rank, the first-person narrator,
the ethics of killing: 'There is an old saying, ‘Murder will out.’ I am
unable to see why this should be so. I am convinced that many a
member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to
human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those
conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait
anti-Semitism: Horniman’s hero is half-Jewish, his
Jewish father having married a daughter of the aristocratic Gascoyne
Horniman, himself of mixed ethnicity—according to Kingsmill, his father
paymaster in chief of the Royal Navy and his mother 'a member of the
aristocracy'—uses his hero’s ancestry to poke quiet fun at the casual
of Edwardian England. 'A Semitic appearance, however superior, is not
recommendation to society,' he notes. Four years after the defeat of
Germany, however, a comedy about a Jewish serial killer would scarcely
been acceptable—least of all at Balcon’s studio.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets retains
the essential plot of
Israel Rank and most of its characters. But for once a filmed
improves enormously on the original. For a start, the plotting is far
varied and inventive: ...
Dennis Price wooing
Dennis Price wooing
tour de force is matched by the rest of the
cast. In the performance of his career, Dennis Price creates a Byronic
Mazzini, who anchors the whole story with his unruffled suavity and
Greenwood awaiting Dennis Price outside prison
Greenwood, one of British cinema’s finest comediennes, is
toe-curlingly delicious as Louis’s purring, manipulative mistress
Valerie Hobson, despite being saddled with the thankless role of 'the
woman'—and a priggish one to boot—evinces, under Hamer’s direction, an
appealing warmth often lacking in her other screen appearances.
the success of Kind Hearts and
Coronets, Balcon hailed
it as 'an entirely new kind of comedy' and 'the best film we have
when first presented with the story, he had been horrified—'I’m not
make a comedy about eight murders!'—and only capitulated to a united
all Ealing’s top creative personnel. He was even more alarmed when he
finished film—not so much by the violence, which is oblique and
by the powerful erotic charge of the scenes involving
"...Kind Hearts and Coronets, one
senses, engaged his attention and
enthusiasm from start to finish. Hamer’s sharp intelligence, his
language, his cynicism, and his 'wicked glee' gleam through every
it, with its ironic poise and Wildean wit, surely the finest black
British cinema has ever produced...."
February 20, 2007 comment on the film at amazon.com, E. A. Solinas
quotes Lord Tennyson:
"Kind hearts are more than coronets/And simple faith than Norman blood."
"Tennyson could have been writing about the movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," a wonderfully twisted movie all about killing one's relatives to get ahead in the world. This classic black comedy is blessed with excellent acting by Dennis Price and Alec Guinness, as well as some very inventive murders and wry dialogue.
The killer's father
giving a concert
lady of the D'Ascoyne family was ostracized when she
married an Italian singer (he dropped dead when their son was born).
(Price) was raised hearing all about his noble relatives, but ignored
-- and when his mother is refused burial at the family plot, and his
girlfriend Sibella (Joan Greenwood) spurns him for a rich, dull man, he
to become the next Duke.
that, he has to kill off several relatives, which he
does in various ingenious ways. He's also wooing the widow of one such
relative, the kindly Edith (Valerie Hobson), while still frisking with
But you can't commit six murders -- no matter how clever -- without
some suspicions, and soon Louis finds himself a Duke on death row...
there a way out?
whole story is told in flashback, as Louis writes his
memoirs in his cell, and there's only a little bit after the memoirs'
completion that explains what happened next. But from the first moments
(the executioner [played by Miles Malleson] getting excited about the
'privilege' of hanging a
duke), it's pretty obvious that 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' has a
rare, wicked sense of humor.
that is through the irony (Louis is morally opposed
to hunting, but not murder) and brilliantly dark dialogue ("I shot an
arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square"). One of the
things is Louis' narration -- we learn that he's intelligent, droll,
much of a snob as his richer relatives.
there's also the great ways in which the D'Ascoynes
expire -- exploding labs, drifting boats, shooting down a hot air
an arrow, and a battleship that goes the wrong way and crashes into
battleship. A string of murders might normally be dull, but Robert
the wry humor in everything Louis does.
does a simply brilliant job as Louis, a poor relation
who uses charm, intelligence, pleasant lies, kindness and some
murder his relatives (many of whom are much kindlier than he). Only
is as wonderfully amoral as he.
"And Guinness showed his versatility by playing all the D'Ascoyne relatives -- the dotty vicar, a rather ugly suffragette, a pigheaded admiral, and others.
The Boatsman lover
Once Mazzini starts his killing spree, the film picks up its pace quickly and elegantly...understatement be damned.
It is a
testament to the ignorance of most American movie buffs that Guiness is
better known for a role in "Star Wars" than for this masterpieces and
other black-and-whites from Ealing such as "The
Man in the White Suit" and "The Lady Killers."
This film is ranked 64th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films
This film was ranked 6th in the 1999 list by the British Film Institute of the Top 100 British Films
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