A one-panel cartoon on the cubicle wall of a man I once knew depicts three Dantean circles of hell, each representing a different class of malefactor from a different demographic, variously guilty of progressively serious offenses against the taboos of their particular demographics. Those in the first, least serious circle were “Catholics who ate meat on Fridays.” Beneath them, more gravely, were “Jews who ate pork.” Finally, at the very bottom, those who had committed the most shocking trespass of all: “Episcopalians who ate salad with the dessert fork.”
In Kind Hearts and Coronets, the driest, darkest, and arguably the best of Ealing Studio’s acclaimed British crime comedies, murder itself is a trivial offense compared to punctilious observance of the highest standards of Edwardian social rectitude, at least for the aristocratic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), or Lord d’Ascoyne as he is styled after ensuring the deaths of each of the eight relations who once stood between himself and the peerage.
We first meet the newly styled duke on death row, where with complete equanimity he awaits execution by hanging — a prospect that Charles Bradford said “wonderfully clears the mind,” though in the case of the new Lord d’Ascoyne any such effect must surely be secondary to his own adamantine sense of noblesse oblige.
It is this sort of fine feeling that leads Louis to reflect with some satisfaction on the death from natural causes of one of his superior relations, observing, “I was glad, after all his kindness to me, that I should not have to kill him.” On the other hand, another relation, a man of the cloth, gets promoted to first place on Louis’s hit list for the heinous offense of boring Louis and the rest of the family with his sermon at the funeral of Louis’s previous victim.
We must not think, because Louis murdered his way to the peerage, that he was “naturally callous.” (On the contrary, on a hunting outing with one of his relations he declines to carry a gun, for “my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports.”) What motivates Louis’s campaign of attrition is not a violent disposition or even raw ambition, but revenge on the pride and callousness of the d’Ascoynes, who ostracized Louis’s mother after she made an unacceptable marriage to an Italian opera singer, condemning her to a life of poverty and finally rejecting her even in death by refusing her burial in the family crypt.
Which of the film’s various violent deaths leads to Louis’s imprisonment and condemnation, and what ultimately happens, are among the film’s inspired ironies. Along the way, Kind Hearts and Coronets brilliantly sustains its outrageous black humor by maintaining a constant ironic contrast between the outward gentility and sophistication of its aristocratic milieu and the moral decadence and ruthlessness beneath it all.
A cheerfully mean-spirited delight, Kind Hearts is as wryly understated and discreet as Louis’s decorous narration, delighting in the outrageousness of Louis’s atrocities and his deadpan commentary without becoming morbidly entangled in the murders themselves. Even the film’s title is understated irony, an allusion to the sentiment of a line from Tennyson cited in the film: “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”
No small part of the film’s success is due to the lightness of Alec Guinness’s famous tour de force series of cameos in the roles of all eight ranking d’Ascoyne family members, young and old, male and female. Guinness superbly nuances each mini-performance with just the right blend of distinctive character and common ridiculousness, never allowing us either to discount any of the roles or to feel any real empathy for them. Guinness’s recurring appearances are perhaps part of the film’s joke: Price keeps killing him, yet he comes back again and again.
Guinness went on to appear in a number of other Ealing comedies, one of which, The Lavender Hill Mob, was named among the 45 films of the 1995 Vatican film list. In choosing The Lavender Hill Mob, the list perhaps means to honor the world of Ealing comedy as a whole, as well as to acknowledge the comedy genre itself (The Lavender Hill Mob is the only comedy on the list).
It is possible that the Pontifical Commission experts chose The Lavender Hill Mob over Kind Hearts and Coronets in part because its subject was only theft, not murder. One could certainly understand such concern, and in any case The Lavender Hill Mob is certainly a classic. Even so, Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably Ealing’s masterpiece.
Much of the comedy comes from reversal of stereotypes, with the mild-mannered, middle-class Holland aspiring to the role of criminal mastermind, and Holland’s elderly landlady (Edie Martin) knowledgeably conversing with bemused bobbies in street slang learned from dime-store crime fiction. And while the caper-gone-wrong comedy genre has been done to death in recent decades, The Lavender Hill Mob avoids most of what became the clichés of the genre.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.