Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Who Could Murder a Guinness
A difficult client can make things most distressing. Some of them tend to be very hysterical, so inconsiderate - The Hangman
Considering "Kind Hearts and Coronets" was released back in 1949 it is a surprisingly daring movie for the time. I say daring because "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is a dark comedy, one which is seriously dry and revolves around a man trying to kill off members of his estranged family in revenge for the way they treated his mother and to some extent him in order to get the title and riches which belongs to him. It's not the sort of movie you would expect to have been made back in the 1940s and possibly not the sort of movie which the British public would have wanted. But it worked and was a success when originally released and to be honest it still works now providing plenty of amusement from the clever writing and the fact that Alec Guinness plays 8 different roles in the one movie.
Louis Mazzini's (Dennis Price - School for Scoundrels) mother was once part of the well to do D'Ascoyne, but when she ran away with an Italian opera singer they disowned her and her family. Now an adult Louis decides it's time to take revenge on the D'Ascoyne family and regain the family title which is rightly his and becoming the next Duke. There is just one problem as there are still 8 members of the D'Ascoyne alive and well so he must first work out a way off bumping each of them off.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets" starts with the executioner showing up at a prison the night before he is due to hang Louis Mazzini, otherwise known as the Duke D'Ascoyne and he is a little excited by the prospect of executing a Duke. It's strangely amusing because we watch as he not only has a sneaky glance at the Duke's neck in preparation but also enquires of the correct protocol for addressing the Duke. And that amusement continues as we then meet the Duke who sits down to pen his memoirs as to how he came to be in such a predicament. It is the memoirs which takes up the majority of the movie working as a narrative for one long flashback as we learn why Louis and his mother were excluded from the D'Ascoyne family and what eventually lead to him deciding to bump off each of the family till he was the only D'Ascoyne left and the heir to the title.
What basically follows on from Louis making this evil decision is a series of scenes where members of the D'Ascoyne die. Some of them purely accidental such as The Admiral going down with his sinking ship whilst others feature Louis bumping them off, be it with poison, or in one of the funniest scenes a bow and arrow. But all of this murder is so amusing because it is comical and very dry. Watching Louis cross off the names with relish of his victims from the family tree he keeps hidden is just brilliant and so are the evil interactions he has with his victims prior to killing them.
And at the same time as all this murder is going on you also have Louis troubled love life as he feels spurned when love of his life Sibella marries someone else whilst he also ending up falling for the wife of one of his victims. It makes it seriously amusing as it weaves it's way through this mix of romance and murder to the point that Louis has become the Duke and found himself in prison. What is so great is that there is an amusing twist in things, and the way the movie is constructed with us meeting The Duke in prison before the flashback of his life we immediately presume one thing. And if that twist wasn't enough their is another amusing twist to go on top of that one, one which you can see coming but still works brilliantly.
All of this story is deliver with so much dry wit that you can't but help but laugh and part of the reason why it works is that Dennis Price is wonderful as Louis Mazzini/The Duke. Everything he does is so dry and almost matter of fact that there really is an element of a deranged evilness about him but you warm to him because he is the victim. But whilst Dennis Price is wonderful it is Alec Guinness who steals the show with him appearing as 8 members of the D'Ascoyne family. Watching Guinness being the old banker or the vicar or the admiral to name but 3 is just brilliant because he gives every single character a uniqueness. And watching him dressed as a woman to play Lady Agatha is purely marvellous. As such whilst Dennis Price is first rate and both Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood are wonderful as love interests it is Alec Guinness who makes "Kind Hearts and Coronets" so memorable and so much fun.
What this all boils down to is that "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is a first rate example of a great British comedy. It maybe over 60 years old but it is still so much fun be it the dry humour of all these murders or Dennis Price as the nefarious Louis Mazzini. But it is Alec Guinness who makes "Kind Hearts and Coronets" not only memorable but also fun through playing 8 different characters which in a bit of old fashioned camera trickery do appear in one scene together.
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