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Kind Hearts and Coronets
Directed by Robert Hamer with Alex Guiness, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, black and white, 88 minutes, 1949

Ah, the sanctity of family ties!

cover of DVD

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.

As 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,

In his long 2006 essay accompanying the DVD version of this film, Philip Kemp observes that

"Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is an Ealing comedy in name only. True, it’s undeniably a comedy and was made by (though largely not at) Ealing. But in virtually every other respect, it deviates startlingly from the commonly accepted stereotype. Ealing comedies, it’s widely agreed, are cozy, even complacent; Kind Hearts and Coronets is callous and amoral. The humor of Ealing comedy is essentially good-natured and folksy; Kind Hearts and Coronets is cool, ironic, and witty. Sex in Ealing comedies is mostly avoided or, if inevitable, treated with embarrassed jocularity; several scenes in Kind Hearts and Coronets carry a potent erotic charge....

"None of which is so surprising, given that Kind Hearts and Coronets was created by the maverick Robert Hamer, of all Ealing directors the one who found it hardest to conform to the studio’s upbeat, wholesome ethos. And unlike Alexander Mackendrick, Ealing’s other great maverick director, Hamer never had the patience—or the cunning—to slip his subversive notions into his work under the guise of innocuous comedy. Hamer openly fought for his ideas and, in the cautious atmosphere of post–World War II British cinema, usually lost.

"The prevailing mode of filmmaking at Ealing—still, half a century after its demise, the most famous of all British film studios—was largely the creation of production head Michael Balcon, who ran it as a benevolent autocracy. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Balcon was fervently patriotic, left-liberal in politics, and prudish in sexual matters. When, in 1955, Ealing was sold to the BBC, Balcon had a plaque placed on the studio wall that read: 'Here, during a quarter of a century, many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.' What he most likely had in mind was Ealing’s bent for realism, much influenced by the number of senior Ealing personnel—Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, Charles Crichton, indeed Hamer himself—who had joined the studio from the British documentary movement. But more than that, the kind of film that Balcon always preferred, and that he held to be typically British, was essentially conciliatory, with a plot that moved toward final-reel consensus, for the good of the community—an outcome reflected in such mainstream Ealing movies as the drama The Blue Lamp (1949) and the comedy Passport to Pimlico (1949).

"By 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 he had cause to detest.

"Hamer was born in 1911, into a prosperous, respectable Welsh landowning family....At Cambridge, where he studied math, he seemed set for a brilliant degree; but to the horror of his family, he was sent down for having an affair with a man....Hamer achieved rapid success at Ealing....His first directorial credit came on a segment of the multiepisode ghost movie Dead of Night (1945), 'The Haunted Mirror,' in which a pleasant, bland young man is drawn into a dangerous past of violence and sexuality....

"But what most clearly distinguishes Kind Hearts and Coronets from its Ealing stablemates—and what most alarmed Michael Balcon about it—is its language and tone, for which the film’s original source material deserves 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.

"It’s sometimes suggested that Israel Rank is a feeble book, and anti-Semitic. Neither is true. Horniman’s novel is light, witty, and entertaining, written in an aphoristic sub-Wildean style. (In his introduction to the 1946 edition, Hugh Kingsmill hints that Horniman was gay.) Above all—and this is undoubtedly what appealed to Hamer—it expresses an amused disdain for conventional morality. Here’s Israel Rank, the first-person narrator, musing on the ethics of killing: 'There is an old saying, ‘Murder will out.’ I am really unable to see why this should be so. I am convinced that 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 and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.'

"As for anti-Semitism: Horniman’s hero is half-Jewish, his Jewish father having married a daughter of the aristocratic Gascoyne clan. Horniman, himself of mixed ethnicity—according to Kingsmill, his father was paymaster in chief of the Royal Navy and his mother 'a member of the Greek aristocracy'—uses his hero’s ancestry to poke quiet fun at the casual bigotry of Edwardian England. 'A Semitic appearance, however superior, is not the best recommendation to society,' he notes. Four years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, however, a comedy about a Jewish serial killer would scarcely have been acceptable—least of all at Balcon’s studio. Israel’s surname had to go, too: Ealing’s films, after all, were distributed by the Rank Organization, chairman, J. Arthur Rank. So Israel Rank became the half-Italian Louis Mazzini.

"Kind Hearts and Coronets retains the essential plot of Israel Rank and most of its characters. But for once a filmed adaptation improves enormously on the original. For a start, the plotting is far more varied and inventive: Israel dispatches most of his victims with poison—not the most ingenious, or cinematic, of methods—where Louis uses explosive caviar, arrow, weir, shotgun, and so forth. Israel is arrested for the bungled murder of his final victim, Earl Gascoyne, whereas Hamer and his coscreenwriter, John Dighton, introduce the delicious irony of having Louis convicted for the one murder he didn’t commit. And Israel is rescued from the gallows by a pallid character called Esther Lane: one of his mistresses (along with Sibella), she kills herself for love of him, leaving a signed confession to the murder. In the film, Sibella’s machinations are far less melodramatically conventional, and much more entertaining....

Price wooing Miss Greenwood

Dennis Price wooing Miss Greenwood

"...Guinness’s tour de force is matched by the rest of the cast. In the performance of his career, Dennis Price creates a Byronic Louis Mazzini, who anchors the whole story with his unruffled suavity and stylish narration.

Joan Greenwood awaiting Dennis Price outside prison

Joan Greenwood awaiting Dennis Price outside prison

"Joan Greenwood, one of British cinema’s finest comediennes, is toe-curlingly delicious as Louis’s purring, manipulative mistress Sibella.

Vsalerie Hobson

Valerie Hobson

"And Valerie Hobson, despite being saddled with the thankless role of 'the good woman'—and a priggish one to boot—evinces, under Hamer’s direction, an appealing warmth often lacking in her other screen appearances.

"After the success of Kind Hearts and Coronets, Balcon hailed it as 'an entirely new kind of comedy' and 'the best film we have made.' But when first presented with the story, he had been horrified—'I’m not going to make a comedy about eight murders!'—and only capitulated to a united front of all Ealing’s top creative personnel. He was even more alarmed when he saw the finished film—not so much by the violence, which is oblique and stylized, but by the powerful erotic charge of the scenes involving Greenwood’s delectably sensual Sibella. He demanded that they be toned down; Hamer indignantly refused, and the disagreement flared into a public row. Finally, Balcon reluctantly gave way, but Hamer’s career at Ealing never fully recovered.

"...Kind Hearts and Coronets, one senses, engaged his attention and enthusiasm from start to finish. Hamer’s sharp intelligence, his delight in language, his cynicism, and his 'wicked glee' gleam through every frame, making it, with its ironic poise and Wildean wit, surely the finest black comedy British cinema has ever produced...."

In his 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

The killer's father giving a concert

"A young lady of the D'Ascoyne family was ostracized when she married an Italian singer (he dropped dead when their son was born). Louis (Price) was raised hearing all about his noble relatives, but ignored by them -- and when his mother is refused burial at the family plot, and his devious girlfriend Sibella (Joan Greenwood) spurns him for a rich, dull man, he decides to become the next Duke.

"To do that, he has to kill off several relatives, which he does in various ingenious ways. He's also wooing the widow of one such murdered relative, the kindly Edith (Valerie Hobson), while still frisking with Sibella. But you can't commit six murders -- no matter how clever -- without raising some suspicions, and soon Louis finds himself a Duke on death row... but is there a way out?

"The 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 onward (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.

"Much of 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 best things is Louis' narration -- we learn that he's intelligent, droll, and as much of a snob as his richer relatives.

The suffragette

The suffragette

"But there's also the great ways in which the D'Ascoynes expire -- exploding labs, drifting boats, shooting down a hot air balloon with an arrow, and a battleship that goes the wrong way and crashes into ANOTHER battleship. A string of murders might normally be dull, but Robert Hamer keeps the wry humor in everything Louis does.

"Price does a simply brilliant job as Louis, a poor relation who uses charm, intelligence, pleasant lies, kindness and some disguises to murder his relatives (many of whom are much kindlier than he). Only crackly-voiced Greenwood is as wonderfully amoral as he.

The dotty vicar   

                                 The dotty vicar                                                                    

"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 Admral

The admiral


The businessman

The businessman


The Photographer

The photographer

The hunter

The hunter


The general

The General

The boatsman lover

The Boatsman lover

The Earl

The Earl

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

Click here to order blue-ray version of the film from amazon.com

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