Saturday, June 21, 2014

Taking Care of Family Business

"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms."

Louis (Dennis Price)

The humor from Ealing Studios' black comedy, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which made its British premiere 65 years ago today, is deliciously understated, as the humor in British movies often is.

Alec Guinness, who was in his mid–30s by this time, played eight members (of varying ages and genders) of an aristocratic family. They represented the blood line to inherit a dukedom, and they stood between Louis (Dennis Price), the son of a disowned woman and the opera singer with whom she ran away, and what his mother told him was rightfully his.

After his mother's death, Louis vowed to avenge her by claiming his birthright, and the only way to do that was to eliminate the eight family members who stood between him and his inheritance — so he set about doing precisely that.

The story was told in a flashback style. Louis sat in his prison cell, convicted of committing multiple murders and waiting to be hanged the next morning. While he waited, he wrote about his crimes, explaining how each of the murders was accomplished.

His descriptions of his acquaintances with his unsuspecting victims were delightfully droll. At one point, he wrote of liking one of his victims and lamented the fact that he would have so little time with him.

Other regrets regarding his actions were equally understated.

"I was sorry about the girl," he wrote about killing his cousin and his cousin's mistress, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, "but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death."

He made mention also of the two women who divided his affections — Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a friend from his childhood, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of his victims.

"While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella," he wrote, "I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith."

Then, at the very end of the movie, evidence was brought to the prison that saved him from the gallows, and Louis left the prison in triumph.

As he left the prison, he was approached by someone in the British media about his memoirs — and he realized with a start that he had left his manuscript in his cell.

The audience was left to speculate about what happened next.

Of course, he didn't actually kill all of his relatives — the admiral, for instance, went down with his ship and thus spared Louis the responsibility for his death.

But, by and large, he was responsible for the deaths of most.

It was a classic black comedy from Ealing Studios, which has been a movie/TV production facility for more than a century, but its true golden era was the period just after World War II, when Ealing was producing movies like "Kind Hearts and Coronets."

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" may just be the best of Ealing's black comedies — with the possible exception of 1955's "The Ladykillers," which the Coen brothers remade 10 years ago.