Kind Hearts and Coronets
March 14, 2006
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a classic black comedy, a satire of the English class system that shows the conflicts and disparities within this system. It is also a revenge comedy where the act of murder becomes an art unto itself.
Embittered by his mother being unfairly disinherited by her affluent family, Louis (Price) decides to ascend up the family ladder by killing the eight members (all played by Guinness) that stand in his way of becoming Duke. Their family tree becomes his blueprint for murder.
This is a film that deals with the language of the enlightened class. It is a very literary movie and yet the irony is that Louis is ultimately betrayed by his own literature – his memoirs. He also narrates the film and his voiceovers are polished and elegant, much like the mood that director Robert Hamer creates throughout. Louis’ voiceovers also provide further meaning and perspective to what we are watching. For example, he uses verse to describe the death of Aunt Augusta. In doing so, this governs our response to the morality of what we’re seeing. We are removed emotionally and morally from it. The murders become a game and we feel safe laughing at them. We even begin to anticipate them – how and when they will occur.
Louis is cool and elegant, a master of language, using aphorisms to distance himself from the killings he does. He wears words like a costume and they are his weapons to impress others. Louis has a lot of style and makes a point to never upset decorum or manners. He is the little man against the bureaucratic group as represented by his mother’s snobby, aristocratic family. He is obsessed by the injustices of the upper class because they ostracized his mother for marrying for love and not for convenience.
Alec Guinness delivers several brilliant performances as he plays eight different roles – all stereotypes from English literature. In a way, Louis is not just killing these people but also cliches of bad literature. The victims are killed by their own vices. The photographer is killed by his own chemicals, the vicar is killed by his own alcohol and the hunter killed by his own trap. This is also a film about deception and so Hamer uses deep focus photography to show two things happening at once. Someone is being deceived and because we can see this, it is comical.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is about the stylish quality of evil, a sophisticated, subtle film about a serial killer. The civilized rules of conduct are scrutinized. The brilliance of the movie is how it subverts the notion of moral convention. There is no remorse or no final redemption from our conscienceless protagonist.
The first disc has a theatrical trailer.
Also included is the “American Ending” that includes an additional final shot for the U.S. release so that the crime was not shown to pay off for Louis and is more explicit than the U.K. version.
There are “Stills Galleries” of costumes, portraits, production stills and publicity photos.
The second disc features a feature length BBC documentary on the history of Ealing Studios which produced Kind Hearts and Coronets. It showcases plenty of examples from the fine roster of films they made with reflections from its surviving employees mixed with archival footage from others. A decent amount of time is spent on Kind Hearts, considered by many to be the studio’s crowning achievement. This is an excellent look at this legendary studio.
Finally, there is “Parkinson: ‘Meets Alec Guinness.’” The veteran actor rarely gave interviews so this was a memorable public appearance on this venerable U.K. talk show done in 1977. Guinness is charming and tells all kinds of entertaining anecdotes. Naturally, he also talks about Star Wars (1977). He wasn’t impressed by the dialogue but felt it was compelling material and good escapist fare.