Kind Hearts and Coronets

Director: Robert Hamer
Screenplay: Robert Hamer & John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman
Stars: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Valerie Hobson (Edith D'Ascoyne), Joan Greenwood (Sibella Holland), Alec Guinness (Duke Etherel / The Banker / Rev. Lord Henry d'Ascoyne / General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne / Admiral Horatio d'Ascoyne /Young Henry / Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne/ Lord Ascoyne d'Ascoyne), Audrey Fildes (Louisa d'Ascoyne Mazzini), Miles Malleson (Mr. Elliott), Clive Morton (The Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel Holland)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1949
Country: U.K.
Kind Hearts and Coronets Criterion Collection DVD
Kind Hearts and CoronetsBoth a finely polished gem of literary wit and a ruthlessly satiric vision of privilege, class conflict, and Edwardian morals, Kind Hearts and Coronets belies its seemingly genteel title by focusing on a young man determined to murder his way to the dukedom he feels is his birthright. Made in the dark years after World War II, Kind Hearts and Coronets broke from the warmer tone of most films produced at England's famed Ealing Studios with its savagely despondent view of human nature. The film has nary a redeeming character on screen save the antihero's poor mother and possibly the bluenose widow of one of his eventual victims.

The mother of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price, embodying the very essence of refined urbanity masking a frighteningly sociopathic mind) is banished from her regal family heritage for the grave sin of marrying for love, rather than wealth and position. This leaves Louis with no claim to his family heritage. Stuck in a dead-in job with no prospects and rejected by his longtime sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood) for an implacable dullard with more financial potential (John Penrose), Louis decides to kill his way up the line by knocking off the eight members of the entrenched d'Ascoyne family that stand between him and his dukedom.

In a feat of casting genius, the incomparable Alec Guinness was brought in to play all eight of the d'Ascoyne family members, which range from a stuttering, stuffy vicar, to a ridiculously proud admiral, to a stuck-up playboy and even a first-wave feminist rabble-rouser. Guinness, though not on screen for very long as each character, still manages to endow each of them with enough unique traits and personality to make them instantly memorable. Guinness had already made his screen mark several years earlier in two David Lean adaptations of Charles Dickens classics, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and Kind Hearts and Coronets put forever to rest any doubt about his unique versatility. Guinness's honorary 1980 Oscar for "advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances" could well describe his work in this one film.

However, as great as Guinness is, he does not completely dominate Kind Hearts and Coronets, a film whose subtle ruthlessness becomes its most enduring trait. Director Robert Hamer set out from the beginning to undermine all conventional morals and values, and he succeeded mightily, even though the film itself never feels as depraved as it really is. This is partially because its dark heart is buried so deeply beneath Hamer and co-screenwriter John Dighton's clever and literate dialogue. Kind Hearts and Coronets is most frequently described as a black comedy, but it's not funny in the usual sense, even by refined British standards. It is more of a slow burn, its understated comedy building in proportion to both Louis's devious antics and the audience's increasing investment in his literally getting away with murder.

In fact, Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably the best film ever devised to illustrate Alfred Hitchcock's theory that the audience can be made to identify with any character on-screen, no matter how vile. Louis Mezzini is the very portrait of an amoral scoundrel, not only in his murderous activities, but in his treatment of everyone around him as a series of pawns to be manipulated to his own end. One could argue that he is redeemed by the fact that his plot is set in motion entirely to exact vengeance for the d'Ascoyne clan's unforgivable treatment of his mother, but that falls short because the obvious pleasure he takes in knocking off his relatives far outweighs any sense of nobility. He is a cad through and through, but one you just can't help siding with.

Kind Hearts and Coronets Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • BBC documentary about the history of Ealing Studios
  • 1977 talk show interview with Alec Guinness
  • Alternate American ending
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Stills gallery of portraits and production photos
  • Essay by film critic Philip Kemp
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 28, 2006

    Kind Hearts and Coronets was released on DVD by Anchor Bay back in 2002, but the new Criterion two-disc set offers an improved transfer that is cleaner and also has deeper, richer blacks and more detail. The Criterion transfer was taken from a 35mm composite fine-grain master and digitally restored, which has resulted in a cleaner image that is lacking in dirt, debris, and scratches. The black-and-white picture features strong contrast, bold black levels, and excellent shades of gray that bring out all the background details. The image is, like other recent Criterion releases of films in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, picture-boxed to eliminate loss of image due to overscan on conventional tube TVs, a concession that I still feel is unnecessary given the rapidly increasing saturation of high-definition widescreen monitors.

    The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored, sounds excellent.

    The first disc of this two-disc set includes the film's original theatrical trailer, two stills galleries with dozens of production photos and cast portraits, and the film's alternate ending that was tacked on to U.S. prints to satisfy the strictures of the Production Code. Interestingly, this alternate ending is different only in the very last shot, which makes it clear that Louis Mazzini gets caught for his murderous deeds, rather than the much more clever British ending, which leaves it slightly vague. The real gems, however, are saved from the second disc. Here we get "Made in Ealing," an hour-and-15-minute documentary produced in 1986 for the BBC's Omnibus series. It thoroughly documents the history of Ealing Studios, complete with clips from all their most famous films and interviews with virtually every major figure who worked there (in this sense, the documentary's age benefits it because most of interviewees who were still alive in the mid-1980s are no longer with us). There is also a rare and thoroughly entertaining 70-minute appearance by Alec Guinness from a 1977 episode of Michael Parkinson's BBC talk show (it's worth watching just to hear Guinness describe George Lucas's dialogue in Star Wars as "ropey").

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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