Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day Eight: Kind Hearts and Coronets

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #187
Year: 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Starring: Alec Guinness and Dennis Price

It is, of course, natural that on an undertaking so massive as watching the entire IMDb Top 250, that even for a serious film fan, there would be some movies on the list that carry with them absolutely no expectations. For me, Kind Hearts and Coronets is one such film. Aside from a very intriguing blurb about one actor playing eight members of a noble family on Netflix, I knew nothing about this movie going in. In an era where everything is analyzed and overanalyzed by any dummy with Internet access – this dummy included – it's a rather nice luxury to watch a movie without any preconceptions of it whatsoever.

What I got with Kind Hearts and Coronets was an exceedingly well-executed black comedy that laid the groundwork for a number of elements of modern film, namely the one-actor-as-many-characters device and the man-convicted-of-a-crime-he's-innocent-of-when-he's-really-guilty-of-another plot twist. For a movie that is so rarely talked about, it certainly feels influential. And considering the little talk one does hear about it revolves around Alec Guinness' multiple performances, thankfully, that is not the movie's only strong point.

The plot is simple enough, but again, executed brilliantly. Dennis Price plays Louis, a young man (and if we're being honest, a total dandy – I'm sure they tried to cast Oscar Wilde's ghost before Price stepped up) whose mother has been disowned by her noble family for marrying a commoner. When they refuse to let her be buried in the family cemetery, Louis decides to kill everyone standing between him and the dukeship. Through a series of inventive death gags – in one of the most memorable, a cousin fond of photography has the paraffin in his dark room swapped out for petroleum – he finally reaches his goal, only to find another obstacle in his way once he is knighted. The script is sometimes dated, but quite a few of the jokes were still able to earn my laughter, and Louis is a satisfying if unspectacular narrator.

Somehow, it feels like there isn't too much that can be said about this movie. It's extremely enjoyable, but there doesn't seem to be much under the surface, and it feels more like a fun way to spend two hours than a masterpiece capable of spurring debate. Does that make its inclusion in the Top 250 wrong? In some ways, it feels so, but the fact that I can't name any movie that has taken its formula or its many devices and done them any better or, perhaps more importantly, any earlier does enough to justify its position to me. Masterpiece is too strong a word for it, but Kind Hearts and Coronets is still a very good movie worthy of more praise than it seems to receive.

The Good: The cliché answer here is Alec Guinness' eight performances, and while they're great, the pacing and plot of the movie shines through. While even the best older movies can seem slow-paced or boring to modern audiences, this film is neither.

The Bad: Louis, while a likable character, is way too much like Oscar Wilde to take seriously at times. It's hard to believe that someone who is as likely to wear a flower in his hat or break into poetry would also be capable of shooting a man point blank.

The Skinny: Deserves to be on the list, though possibly a bit lower.

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