Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the finest comedies from any country, any time. It is the crown jewel of The Sir Alec Guinness Ealing Comedy DVD Collection - or should that be the crowning coronet?
The story is simple, and can be narrated without giving any of the film's delights away. The title comes from a Tennyson poem, viz:
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’T is only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.
Although this is part of an Alec Guinness collection, the acting honours in this movie go to the consummate smooth and handsomely sinister actor, Dennis Price. He stars as Louis Mazzini, the son of a Duke's daughter who has married 'beneath her station' and been cut off totally from her aristocratic D'Ascoyne family.
She dies in poverty. And Louis vows to redress that wrong. And the best way to redress that wrong? Well, her family is unique in that the dukedom can pass through the female line. He is, in fact, 13th in line to become the next Duke of Chalfont. What better revenge than to become the titled head of the family which has cast out his mother and himself?
The dozen people between Louis and the title are quickly reduced by natural means - old age, stupidity and illness - until only eight are left. And now Louis must take an active hand in their demise.
Enter Alec Guinness. He plays all eight of the remaining D'Ascoynes in line for the Chalfont Dukedom, including the wild suffragette, Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne.
His eight characters are tremendously varied and it's great fun to greet each new family arrival. But these are quick caricatures of characters, without great depth - both Peter Sellers and Eddie Murphy have done similar multiple characterisations to far greater effect - and Guinness does not take the spotlight from the wonderfully subtle, multi-faceted Dennis Price.
The casting is uniformly good. Valerie Hobson is primly proper as the wife of one of the soon-to-be deceased d'Ascoyne's. And Joan Greenwood of the darkly sultry voice is as wondrous as only she can be as the dangerous Sibella - this is only three years before she gained celluloid immortality in The Importance of Being Earnest, and all her essential sweetly vixenish characteristics are already there.
But this is Dennis Price's movie. Louis Mazzini in Dennis Price's hands is in fact a suave and charming Ripley - he would have been the perfect actor for a screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, even better than the two principal Ripleys to date, Alain Delon and John Malkovich.
And Kind Hearts and Coronets shares another similarity with Highsmith's world. Yes, it's a comedy, but of the very blackest kind. Louis Mazzini is in fact a charming, debonair psychopath, an amoral creature who can feel no remorse.
And yet we root for him to succeed in his psychopathically quixotic quest. The ending of the movie is one of the little miracles of British film-making. The film 'code' in those days, back in 1949, was that evil-doers could not remain unpunished. But analyse the end carefully. Did the film-makers manage to subvert the code? I think they did, but no-one will ever know - it's a perfect conundrum which will never be resolved.