Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness

It's a shame that most people only know of Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi. He looked the part and delivered his lines with gravity ("I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced"). But he could have played Obi Wan in his sleep; it wasn't his most interesting or entertaining role.

Guinness was a fine dramatic actor, and he also did wonderfully well in comedy. The following are two movies showcasing his comedic talents, both movies made by Ealing Studios after WWII.

Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Director: Robert Hamer
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg
"Kind Hearts and Coronets". Via Wikipedia.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark comedy where the poor relation of a noble family plans to murder eight of his relatives in order to become duke.

All eight relatives are played by Alec Guinness.
  • Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, an ancient bank owner.
  • Mr. Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, a snob infatuated with his mistress.
  • Henry D'Ascoyne, an amiable photography enthusiast.
  • The Duke, an insensitive middle-aged fart.
  • Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne, a man who maybe shouldn't be trusted with large ships.
  • General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne, a blowhard who tells the same war stories over and over again.
  • Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne, a fiery suffragette.
  • Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, an ancient windbag.

Guinness was only in his mid-30s when he played these assorted characters, most of them older. And he made them each unique. It's a brilliant set of performances.

The other main actors do well too, even when they get upstaged by Guinness. Dennis Price plays the poor relation, Louis Mazzini, whose mother was shunned by the D'Ascoyne family after she married an Italian singer. His desire to murder his way to the dukedom is rooted more in pride and vengeance than in greed. He has superior manners, cleverness, attractive looks; he can't reconcile himself to working as a clerk for the rest of his life.

Two women also enter into the picture: the upright Edith (Valerie Hobson), who's the wife of one of the relatives Louis plans to kill, and the mercenary, sensuous Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a childhood friend who's the partner Louis deserves.

When the movie is ending, it feels like the final moments in a game of Tetris, the pieces raining down fast.

Title: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Director: Charles Crichton
Language: English (with a little French and Portuguese)
Rating: Unrated

The Lavender Hill Mob.jpg
"The Lavender Hill Mob". Via Wikipedia.

In this movie, Guinness' smile looks like a bewildered grimace. For years, his character, Henry Holland, has been working as a bank clerk and biding his time. Though he's given people the impression that he's honest and fussy, he's secretly waiting for the opportunity to steal a delivery of gold bullion.

The trickiest part is how to sell the gold afterwards. The solution comes when he meets an artist, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who operates a foundry. They'll disguise the stolen gold as paperweights shaped like the Eiffel Tower, which they'll sell abroad.

The movie is a wonderful comedy about futility and defeat, and it's so English. The main characters lose it sometimes, but for the most part they're polite in how they go about their crime, even when things fall apart. They don't try to cause bodily harm to anyone. They just want their gold and their little excitement in life.

Their crime and the series of mishaps that follow are hilarious. There's an entertaining cast of supporting characters, including two minor crooks who help them out, an obstinate British schoolgirl, and bland Scotland Yard officials who snoop around. Also, Audrey Hepburn makes a brief appearance at the start of the movie (this was before she became a leading lady).

I think Holland suspects that he's not going to get away with his caper, not entirely. But he'll make the excitement last as long as possible. Because whether things are going as planned or getting derailed in absurd ways, this is the most excitement he'll probably ever have, in a life otherwise devoted to conscientious clerking and boarding house tea.