Sunday, September 11, 2011

Kind Hearts and Coronets and Manhattan

Movie Poster of "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) Dir. Robert Hammer

I have just finished watching the film and I will preface this reactionary fan review with an excerpt of Phillip Kemp's article on Ealing Studios. They may have been the most famous film studios in England for a number of years but I feel that younger generations (such as mine) might be unaware of the type of films they made and why they were famous. I think an understanding of this context is important if we are to appreciate where this film originated from and why it was considered to be quite controversial at the time.

The excerpt reads:
"Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is an Ealing comedy in name only. True, it’s undeniably a comedy and was made by (though largely not at) Ealing. But in virtually every other respect, it deviates startlingly from the commonly accepted stereotype. Ealing comedies, it’s widely agreed, are cozy, even complacent; Kind Hearts and Coronets is callous and amoral. The humor of Ealing comedy is essentially good-natured and folksy; Kind Hearts and Coronets is cool, ironic, and witty. Sex in Ealing comedies is mostly avoided or, if inevitable, treated with embarrassed jocularity; several scenes in Kind Hearts and Coronets carry a potent erotic charge. In Ealing comedies, the criminals—even the lovable ones, like Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)—eventually pay for their crimes; the hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets is a calculating serial killer who, in the final reel, stands a good chance of getting away scot-free... 
...The prevailing mode of filmmaking at Ealing—still, half a century after its demise, the most famous of all British film studios—was largely the creation of production head Michael Balcon, who ran it as a benevolent autocracy. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Balcon was fervently patriotic, left-liberal in politics, and prudish in sexual matters. When, in 1955, Ealing was sold to the BBC, Balcon had a plaque placed on the studio wall that read: “Here, during a quarter of a century, many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.” What he most likely had in mind was Ealing’s bent for realism, much influenced by the number of senior Ealing personnel—Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, Charles Crichton, indeed Hamer himself—who had joined the studio from the British documentary movement. But more than that, the kind of film that Balcon always preferred, and that he held to be typically British, was essentially conciliatory, with a plot that moved toward final-reel consensus, for the good of the community—an outcome reflected in such mainstream Ealing movies as the drama The Blue Lamp (1949) and the comedy Passport to Pimlico (1949).  [Phillip Kemp, Kind Hearts and Coronets: Ealing's Shadow Side, available online at: <>]
So, Kind Hearts and Coronets, was a unique film even within its own genre. As one commentator on IMDB put it, it is "A wonderful, heart warming film about multiple murder." I suppose what most people will enjoy about the film is the cutting irony and understated wit of the dialogue as well as the superb acting. The irony in the plot is all-pervasive. There are some obvious examples of this like the steadfast refusal of Sibella, Louis' childhood sweetheart, to marry him at the beginning of the movie because of his lack of wealth and position, then coming to him at the end of the movie and trying to blackmail him into marrying her so that she should could leave bankruptcy and partake in his newly acquired dukedom. Another example is when Louis accompanies his uncle Ethelred on a hunting expedition and says: "I went out shooting with Ethelred or rather to watch Ethelred shooting. My principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports." The (dark) humor lying in the fact that he was out to murder Ethelred! There are the more oblique examples as well which only seem obvious after watching the movie repeatedly (as many reviewers on IMDB have seem to have done!) or going through it slowly on DVD, appreciating every moment (as I did!). One such instance is that "Lady Agatha is a crusader for womens' rights but it's her own equality with me as an heir to the Dukedom of Chalfond that marks her for elimination. Her willings ness to martyr hrself in one cause (womens' suffrage and freeborn equality) gives Louis the opportunity to kill her for its exact opposite (patriarchy and inherited rights)" [Thank you, Picador 66 from Maine, The Supreme Example of Dramatic Irony, 24 September 2006:

Along with this brilliant irony, is attached extremely witty dialogue and exceptional comic delivery. There are too many to name but I especially enjoyed the conversations that preceded and succeeded the murder of the D'Ascoiyne who was interested in amateur photography, since Louis was also enamored with his wife, as well as the dialogue that occurred in D'Ascoiyne manor. On taking a tour of the Castle, for the first time, as an ordinary, paying member of the public, he comments: "It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms" When he tours the Castle again, with the last remaining survivor of the D'Ascoiyne family, Louis as the narrator remarks that "I've never been in a building that had been so lavishly equipped with the instruments of violent death." But none of the dialogue would have been as funny, if they were not delivered in the straight-faced, stiff-upper-lipped style adopted by Dennis Price (now considered to be a stereotypical characteristic of British comedy) or if the eight victims were not depicted as unassumingly by Alec Guinness. A few words have to be also reserved for the two leading actresses of the film: one depicts a kind of smoldering sensuality and coyness that was rare in films of that era and the other portrays a stately elegance and grace. It is easy to see why Louis says: "For while I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as I did when I was with Edith."

Watching this film really reminded me how much I love 'British' humor, whether it is the dark kind as evidenced in "House of Cards", the tongue-in-cheek kind in "Yes, Minister" or the more light-hearted, slapstick kind in "Monty Python" or "Fawlty Towers". I'd really recommend this film to any fans of such shows. 


I have now also watched "Manhattan", directed by Woody Allen and my first observation would be that as far as romantic involvements go, Isaac, the lead character in Manhattan, is in the same predicament as Louis Mazzini. It is easy to imagine him saying: "For while I never admired Mary as much as when I was with Tracy, I never longed for Tracy as much as I did when I was with Mary." Yet, Isaac's romantic trials and tribulations, his professional highs and lows are not the aspects of the movie that capture the attention the most. Even the movie's self-mocking pretentiousness and pseudo-intellectual dialogue, though charming, are not what make the film memorable. What makes the film memorable, is the way Allen captures New York City; the nostalgia he invokes. You can tell he loves the city and when he and Diane Keaton sit at a bench by the Brooklyn Bridge watching the dawn break, anyone who has lived there for any amount of time, can't help but repeat after him: "Boy, this is really a great city, I don't care what anybody s-s- it's really a knock-out, you know?" 

A Scene from "Manhattan" (1979), Dir. Woody Allen 
Sometimes I wish I had the opportunity to get to know that city better. Maybe if I get lucky with Masters applications! 

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