Tag: Joan Greenwood

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.

Tom Jones (1963)

Albert Finney flirts with Diane Cilento (among many, many others) in Oscar winner Tom Jones

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Susannah York (Sophie Western), Hugh Griffith (Squire Western), Edith Evans (Miss Western), Joan Greenwood (Lady Bellaston), Diane Cilento (Molly Seagrim), George Devine (Squire Allworthy), David Tomlinson (Lord Fellamer), Rosalind Atkinson (Mrs Millar), Wilfrid Lawson (Black George), Rosalind Knight (Mrs Fitzpatrick), Jack Macgowan (Patridge), Freda Jackson (Mrs Seagrim), David Warner (Blifil), Joyce Redman (Mrs Waters/Jenny Jones), Rachel Kempson (Bridget Allworthy), Peter Bull (Thwackum), Angela Baddeley (Mrs Wilkins), Julian Glover (Northerton)

In early 1964, America was at the height of Beatlemania. Everything about Swinging Sixties London was the height of cool, so what better way to reflect that at the Oscars than naming Best Film of the previous year as being Tom Jones, the film that turned Henry Fielding’s work into the epitome of the era’s vibe. Watching Tom Jones today is a cruel reminder that generally nothing dates as hard or as fast as cutting-edge film techniques, and that time is often not kind to comedy. But Tom Jones was the first truly British film to lift Best Picture since Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, so it was a sign of the short-lived all-conquering cool of British culture.

Adapted with a frenetic style from Henry Fielding’s novel, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Tom Jones (Albert Finney), adopted by Squire Allworthy (George Devine) after he is found abandoned on Allworthy’s bed as a baby. Growing up, Tom is a roisterer and rodgerer (especially keen on rodgering) but fundamentally decent, in love with Sophia Western (Susannah York) and the target of jealous rumours from his cousin Blifil (David Warner, looking a bit lost in his film debut). Banished as a result of Blifil’s schemes, he journeys to London encountering adventures along the way, not least a night of bliss with a Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) who may (or may not) be his mother. Will Tom be able to prove his innocence, win the love of Sophia and escape his destiny of being “born to hang”?

Tony Richardson came to Tom Jones fresh from directing several searching, morally complex kitchen-sink dramas – and basically seemed determined to cut loose with this film by having fun. What he comes up with is an explosion of multiple different styles, from silent film to sped-up Benny Hill chases. Not a single editing or camera trick is unused, with the film stuffed to the gills with fades, wipes and freeze frames. Richardson basically used every single trick in the book. He was also lucky to have a perfectly judged score from John Addison (winning an Oscar).

It makes for a frenetic and fast-paced film, in love with its own 60s cool of anarchic comedy, sexual liberation and tongue-in-cheek lack of reverence all washed down with a bucket load of thigh-slapping bawdiness. It’s a film that’s inordinately pleased with itself, using Fielding’s interventionist narration style as the licence to break the fourth wall frequently and introduce a dryly hammy voiceover from Michael MacLiammóir. All of this was seen as the height of daring film-making back in the day – especially since Hollywood expected literary adaptations to be treated with reverence rather than as a high-brow Carry-On. But it’s dated badly.

Its smug, overbearing sense of zeitgeist cool comes across terrifyingly passé today, and the film’s daring use of every single cinema style makes it tonally feel like a complete mess. Richardson will segue from farce straight to an immersive hunting sequence where we are invited to feel every moment of the blood lust and violence, straight to a pastoral sequence showing the courtship of Tom and Sophia in glorious countryside.

Richardson himself – despite winning Best Director for his very self-consciously flashy work – also had mixed feelings about the film, recutting it shortly after its Oscar win into a shorter version which remains the version most people have seen today. He said of it that it “felt incomplete…and botched in much of its execution…whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe little inside”.

It’s a fair assessment of a film that is all flash – and way too much of it – and so little substance that it frequently becomes trite, smug and unpleasant to watch. John Osborne’s script (which apparently he submitted than refused to redraft) is in all honesty a mess (much of it was rewritten on set while the narration was a post-production addition to make it all make sense), with barely any quotable lines, and whatever skill the film has is all in the telling and the editing. 

Did Richardson take the whole thing as a lark and then work out later on that comedy is harder than it looks? The entire film was a complete mess on set – several errors were in fact left in the film (such as Western falling off his horse due to Griffith’s drunkenness) and then turned into jokes through the voiceover. There is a slight air from all involved that this isn’t proper film-making, that this is just one to flog for a bit of cash. Its Oscar win is inexplicable, but can be chalked up to a horrendously weak year at the Oscars.

Albert Finney goes through the entire film on autopilot – little matter than it made him a star – and he seems a curious choice for a young lover, throughout the film he channels instead a sort of horny Arthur Seaton. Finney thought the entire thing bosh and a waste of his talents – an attitude that does come across on the screen. Lightness is not always Finney’s strength, and his distant disengagement with the film becomes more striking with every viewing. 

Many of the rest of the cast mug shamelessly. Hugh Griffith bizarrely landed an Oscar nomination for a performance of gurning over-the-top mania. The film had three nominations for Best Supporting Actress: Edith Evans emerges best, although she could play this domineering Mrs Western standing on her head; Diane Cilento brings an attractive lightness to buxom Molly while Joyce Redman is good value and gets the film’s most famous sequence, a slobbery eating sequence with Finney where food is consumed in a very suggestive way as foreplay. Arguably the best supporting roles come from Joan Greenwood as the sexual but cruel Lady Bellaston and George Devine as the decent Squire Allworthy (the only character who isn’t some sort of caricature).

Tom Jones is most of all a memento of a particular brand of fast-paced, technique heavy, manic sixties comedy. It made a lot of money and won a lot of awards, so led to a torrent of similar films from bawdy Hogarthian costume dramas to sex comedies in modern London with naïve but well-endowed young men. Richardson and co. should have credit for catching this vibe first – but it makes for an odd experience today, like a slightly uncomfortable museum piece.