KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS directed by ROBERT HAMER (1949)
Running time: 106 minutes
Britain's Ealing Studios was created in 1938 by Michael Balcon, with the hopes of creating films that more accurately depicted contemporary British life, drawing talent from noted verite filmmakers and contributors. However, it is best remembered for producing comedies and satires with wildly imaginative scenarios, and this film would be a jewel in that crown.
If you didn't know already, Kind Hearts and Coronets is very much a comedy. It's dry in that oh-so-British way, and I think John Hodgman said it was one of his favorite movies. It was also a forebear of films like The Ladykillers in its amorality, which was considered pretty edgy at the time — so much so that the American ending of the British film had to be spelled out instead of being implied (re: comeuppance).
In this satire of a fading aristocracy and its era, Alec Guinness portrays eight members of the blue-blooded D'Ascoyne family who stand in one Louis Mazzini's way of becoming Duke. Dennis Price plays the likable and practical Mazzini; his logic to dispose of the entire family to avenge his mother seems like a fine idea, plus he's got the patience and ability to see it through. After we meet the loathsome D'Ascoynes, it doesn't even seem like murder! More like pest control.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks, on the eve of Mazzini's execution. He is writing his memoirs in his prison cell — albeit afforded every comfort, as he is a Duke at the time of his imprisonment (aha). He tells us the story of his mother, a member of the wealthy D'Ascoyne family disowned for marrying beneath her (to an Italian opera singer).
Mazzini's father dies suddenly, after seeing his newborn son. His mother is thus forced to take various hard jobs that result in her death — upon which the D'Ascoynes refuse her wish to be buried in the family plot. Mazzini swears revenge. He refers to a family tree of those he must take out to ascend to Dukedom.
Along the way he falls for childhood crush Sibella (Joan Greenwood, a delight to watch/hear speak), who rebuffs his proposal and marries another (although they continue a discreetly implied affair). Upon the accidental (ahem) death of Henry D'Ascoyne, he falls for the widow Edith (Valerie Hobson) and we see the women join in on the manipulation and careful strategizing it takes to move ahead and/or secure one's station.
The screenplay for Kind Hearts and Coronets is informed by the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which, as the title implies, features a Jewish lead. But Criterion essayist Philip Kemp writes that "four years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, however, a comedy about a Jewish serial killer would scarcely have been acceptable." I'm not sure a comedy about a serial killer is ever completely acceptable, or should be. But this one is great.