Tag: Dennis Price

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder and amorality abound in the darkest (and perhaps Greatest) Ealing comedy ever

Director: Robert Hamer

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (The nine members of the d’Ascoyne family), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Hangman), Clive Morton (Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel), Hugh Griffith (Lord High Steward)

Imagine you’re Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Your mother is the outcast daughter of the d’Ascoyne family (all of whom, male or female, bear a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness), Dukes of Chalfort. These vindictive snobs won’t even allow his mother to be buried in the family mausoleum. However, in the event of a series of unlikely deaths, Louis is the eventual heir to the dukedom. That couldn’t happen, could it? Even if they’re all such stuffy, tedious bores that the suave, sophisticated, urbane and witty Louis feels a lot more like what a duke should be.

What to do? Well, it’s obvious really: Louis will have to murder them. Because Louis wants nothing more than the thing he can’t have. It’s the same with the ladies in his life: his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), sensual and manipulative, seems all the more tempting when he’s with the refined and austere Edith (Valerie Hobson) and vice versa. We know that the charming Louis’ murderous career will eventually end at the gallows – the film opens with him writing his memoirs and eating his last meal in prison – but what crime will find him there?

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the first of the Ealing comedies. It’s also pretty much the one that sets the Gold Standard. I’ll confess I’ve been sceptical in the past, but rewatching it again, its black comic humour, shrewd psychology and delightful amorality delighted me as never before. Kind Hearts is a very, very funny movie: perfectly constructed, gorgeously scripted and supremely sharp, knowing and scintillating. It’s a miraculously marvellous film.

Is there a comedy sharper and more heartless than Kind Hearts? Our hero is, at best, a sociopath who kills without the slightest regret. Murders are frequent punchlines. One of its leading ladies is as selfish, conniving and ruthless as the hero. D’Ascoynes bite the dust regardless of their decency (and some of them are genuinely quite nice). But we don’t care – largely because Louis is such a smoothly charming and amusing person.

Brilliantly played by Dennis Price, even when poverty forces him into the role of draper’s assistant Louis is the genteel duke to his fingertips. His sociopathic focus on his own desires is delivered with such dry wit (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”) we can’t help but like him, even though he is a remorseless killer. Dispatching one d’Ascoyne and his mistress in a river “accident” he only sighs “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.”

Some critics have attempted to position Louis as some sort of class warrior, pruning the nobility. Would that were so, eh? The biggest snob in the film is clearly Louis (compared to him the worst of the d’Ascoynes are more rude and boorish), a man so convinced of his own intellectual and hereditary superiority that even his lowly roots don’t concern him.

Louis really matches our expectations of a duke. He’s refined in voice and manner, dignified in physicality and has the sort of arch wit no one else can compete with (when Sibella tells him her husband wishes to go to Europe to expand his mind, Louis replies “He certainly has room to do so”). He is a million miles from a class warrior: he wants nothing more than to take his place on the velvet cushions of the House of Lords (so much so he insists on being tried there). He’s so convinced of his own superiority, the dispatch of legions of d’Ascoynes cause him to lose not a second of sleep.

He’s also charming, funny and ingenious: we like him. It’s the same reason we like Joan Greenwood’s scheming, sexy and selfish Sibella: what’s more fun than an unashamed baddy? It’s easier to like her more than Valerie Hobson’s staid Edith – though Hobson’s generous performance is spot on for creating the ideal upper-class wife, exactly the sort of refined status symbol Louis would long for.

Hamer’s perfectly paced comedy is largely a triumph of dialogue and characterisation. He shoots much of it in carefully positioned mid-shot. But there are wonderful moments of visual comedy. Who can forget Admiral d’Ascoyne slowly submerging, going down with his sinking ship? Or, best of all, Louis and Edith’s gentle garden conversation about her husband Henry d’Ascoyne’s future while, in the background, over a wall, the small explosion that has just killed him smokes away (“I could hardly point out that Henry now had no time left for any kind of activity, so I continued to discuss his future” Louis observes). But above all, Hamer doesn’t skim on the cold amorality of Louis. While we are never invited to judge him, there are no attempts to hide his sociopathic blankness.

Confronted with real emotion and situations outside his control, Louis is helpless. When his mother dies, he can only mourn her with a flourish straight out of the cheap melodrama he despises. When Sibella’s husband, the dull Lionel, insults his background, he’s reduced to punching him. Caught off guard in his trial, his articulate wit absolutely deserts him. Louis slips on  personae like the fine suits he wears, but his ambitious mind can only travel on his pre-planned route, no others.

But that makes him more than match for the d’Ascoynes. In a masterstroke, all members of this family are played by Alec Guinness, the sort of impish, playful trick Guinness loved. It’s a series of eight distinct comic sketches – to be honest none of them a challenge to Guinness, who is such a great actor that playing these pencil-sketch eccentrics was no-problem-at-all – but still a delightful running gag. His d’Ascoynes include a bumbling vicar, a windbag general forever banging on about his Boer (Bore?) war, a sneering playboy scion, bumbling amateur-photographer Henry (the most sympathetic by a mile), a stuffy banker, an austere suffragette and a bullying duke with a capacity for violence.

Seeing each of these Guinnesses is a neat running joke (not to mention, a little gag at the in-breeding of the upper classes). Price gets in on the act as well, doubling up as Louis’ Italian Tenor father (who dies of shock on Louis’ birth – our hero’s first murder?). But it’s also part of the film’s comedic commentary on construction, duality and falseness. Is it a surprise that the d’Ascoynes are all facets of the same actor, when Louis himself is an entirely self-constructed man, part bitter by-blow, part natural duke? Nothing is ever quite what it seems. Louis lies to everyone he meets, pretends affections he never feels and presents a front to the world totally different from his real self. Even the reason Louis is on death row turns out to be radically different from what we expect.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect display of arch Wildean front, redirected into sociopathic irritation (I can’t call Louis furious – he’s not got enough depth to him for real anger). It’s a jet-black comedy, crammed with superb lines and brilliantly acted, above all by Price whose tortured unknowability behind his Cowardian suaveness is perfect. Guinness went into film legend, Greenwood is fascinatingly vicious and Hobson the embodiment of polite class. Every scene has a great line and the humour is as dark as it comes. It’s one of the greatest of all Ealing’s comedies –certainly the darkest and most vicious – with a hero who looks, acts and talks like a villain.

Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde takes on both blackmailers and the vilest of laws in Victim

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Melville Farr), Sylvia Sims (Laura Farr), Dennis Price (Calloway), Nigel Stock (Phip), Peter McEnery (Boy Barrett), Donald Churchill (Eddy Stone), Anthony Nicholls (Lord Fullbrook), Hilton Edwards (P.H.) Norman Bird (Harold Doe), Darren Nesbitt (Sandy Youth), Alan MacNaughton (Scott Hankin), Noel Howlett (Patterson), Charles Lloyd-Pack (Henry)

Victim is both a film of its time and hugely daring. It was released in 1961, six years before homosexuality was decriminalised. It feels slightly old-fashioned and coy in its language and style – but at the time would have been almost unbelievably daring. It not only presented gay people as normal people (and not limp-wristed comic figures) but sensitively and sympathetically argues that the law (or “blackmailer’s charter” as the Chief Inspector calls it) was morally wrong.

Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is a married lawyer, about to be offered the position of Queen’s Counsel. One day he rebuffs the entreaties of a young man named Barrett (Peter McEnery). The man later hangs himself in police custody, the victim of blackmail. Farr held deep feelings for Barrett – but cut himself off from contact, having been haunted by his consciously suppressed homosexual feelings. Heartbroken and angered by Barrett’s death, Farr decides to take on the blackmailers – even if it means destroying his career and endangering his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Sims).

In 1961 Dirk Bogarde was one of the most popular actors in the country, a romantic leading man, best known for a series of light British comedies. He was also a gay man, who lived for decades with his manager and partner Anthony Forwood. It’s almost impossible to understand today how brave it was, how much of his career he put on the line, to play Farr. At a time when many people (including characters in this film) considered the very idea of homosexuality a revolting aberration, for Bogarde to play this role could have been career suicide. When even today Hollywood actors are afraid to come out for fear of damaging their careers, here in 1961 was an actor who was actually gay, playing a gay lawyer, at a time when that part of his life was a crime.

What’s particularly impressive about Bogarde’s performance is its calmness, its control. Farr rarely raises his voice, and never hectors us or the characters about the morality of the law. Only once does he show real rage – punching another man after a comment too far about a university “friend” who committed suicide. Bogarde’s Farr is a man, who (the movie implies) has constantly denied that part of himself (much to his pain and of those closest to him). His decision to take a stand is as much accepting a part of himself, as it is doing the right thing.

It’s the scenes with his wife where Bogarde excels. These are deeply, searingly painful scenes of a man struggling to express to his wife his own feelings. Farr makes it clear he ended contact with Barrett because he desired him, because he loved him – more (or rather in a different way) than he loves his wife. Bogarde allegedly wrote his own lines for this key scene, effectively Farr’s coming out. It’s a powerful scene of a man letting a burden fall from his shoulders, of finally saying something he could barely admit to himself. 

The relationship with his wife is one of the central points of interest in the film, the story developing in a way that feels natural and unforced. Sylvia Sims is equally good as a woman who is sympathetic, but can’t completely comprehend the depth of Farr’s feelings. There’s no condemnation or recrimination – but there is a low-key feeling of something being broken, of the two of them realising that they have companionship and a platonic love – but not the passion that marriage should have. It’s a testament to the un-showy realism of the film, that it avoids outbursts and fury in these scenes in favour of a quietly powerful, mutually supportive uncertainty.

The rest of the film treads a fine line between polemic and procedural. It’s a well-written, heartfelt piece that wears its research lightly. It’s crazy to think this is first film to actually use the word “homosexual”. The characters are a neat snapshot of the personalities of the time. Some of the straight characters are violently opposed to the “degenerates”. Others, such as the lead Inspector, enforce the law because they must. The homosexual characters are similarly wide-ranging: some are dignified, many are deeply scared, some have a patrician smugness and arrogance (it’s telling Farr gets more angry at these than anyone else in the movie). 

There are wonderful opportunities for a host of character actors. Charles Lloyd-Pack (as barber Henry) in particular suddenly unleashes a heartfelt, achingly sad speech of defiance in which he says he has been to prison twice for what he is, and will not go again. Norman Bird’s bookshop owner Harold is a mix of guilt, frustrated feeling and fear – a man deeply confused by his feelings. Nigel Stock is also marvellous as a car dealer terrified of losing out on an inheritance from his father-in-law should the truth be known. 

I also loved Noel Howlett’s quiet dignity as Farr’s assistant – and his matter-of-fact statement (after learning the truth) that he has never doubted Farr’s integrity and sees no reason to do so now has a brilliant stiff-upper lip emotion to it. The film contrasts this subtly with Alan MacNaughton’s thinly veiled disgust as Farr’s brother-in-law when he learns the truth.

The film wraps its careful research into the issues of the homosexuality laws – and the dangers of blackmail they expose people to – within an engaging whodunit mystery, set in a very real-feeling London of the sixties. The film has a wonderful eye and ear for the social life of the time, and it throws enough red-herrings and police detective tropes in there to keep the film entertaining. Despite its constant references back to the laws of the time, and the criticisms it makes, it never feels like a polemic – it’s first and foremost a human story.

Yes it is a little dated – very much of its time, and it’s shot with a careful conservatism by Basil Dearden, though he has an expert control of pace and there is no doubting his passionate commitment to this film and its subject matter. That’s what you need to remembe: how daringly, unbelievably controversial this film would have been to make. All the major players put their careers on the line here: and it pays off. It would be six years before the revolting laws were repealed, and this happened for many, many reasons – but this film was a genuine help for making people see the wrongheadedness of these laws.