This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

25Nov/19

ALEC GUINNESS: KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS / THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is sick and tired of being bossed around by the D’Ascoynes (Alec Guinness in multiple roles) and decides to take extreme action in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is sick and tired of being bossed around by the D’Ascoynes (Alec Guinness in multiple roles) and decides to take extreme action in Kind Hearts and Coronets

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (Robert Hamer, 1949)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Wednesday, November 27 – Thursday, December 5
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

After being spurned by their aristocrat family and watching the wealthy D’Ascoynes turn their back on his mother even in death, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) decides that he is not going to let them get away with such awful treatment. So Louis, the tenth Duke of Chalfont, comes up with a plot to get rid of the eight D’Ascoynes standing between him and the dukedom. In Robert Hamer’s wickedly funny black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets — screening at Film Forum November 27 through December 5 in a seventieth anniversary 4K restoration — each one of those haughty D’Ascoynes is played by Alec Guinness, young and old, male and female, to deservedly great acclaim.

The film is told in flashback as an elegant, distinguished Louis is writing his memoirs in prison on the eve of his execution. He eloquently describes the details of his multiple murders, as well as his unending yearning for the questionably prim and proper Sibella (Joan Greenwood), who continues her flirtations with him even after she marries Louis’s former schoolmate Lionel (John Penrose), as well as his relationship with Edith (Valerie Hobson), the wife of one of the D’Ascoynes he kills on his march to power, glory, and revenge. But his hubris leads to his downfall — and one of the most delicious twist endings in film history.

Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, and adapted by Hamer (The Spider and the Fly, School for Scoundrels) and cowriter John Dighton (The Barretts of Wimpole Street), Kind Hearts and Coronets — which was turned into the Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — takes on British high society, class conflict, royalty, and hypocrisy with a brash dose of cynical humor and more than a hint of eroticism, pushing the sexual envelope amid all the laughter. Price is terrific as the dapper Louis, but it’s impossible to steal the show from Guinness, who is a riot as the succession of doomed D’Ascoynes. Guinness was originally asked to play four of the roles but suggested that he do them all, and thankfully Ealing Studios agreed; one of the key shots in the film is when six of the D’Ascoynes are seen together. In conjunction with Kind Hearts and Coronets, Film Forum is also showing three other classics starring the ever-graceful Alec Guinness de Cuffe, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers.

Goofy chemist Sid Stratton (Alec Guinness) is looking to revolutionize the textile industry in the Ealing classic The Man in the White Suit

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Wednesday, November 27, 2:40, 8:50
Sunday, December 1, 6:15
Wednesday, December 4, 2:40, 8:50
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

Alexander Mackendrick’s splendid 1951 Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit is a hysterical Marxist fantasy about corporations, unions, and the working man that doesn’t feel dated in the least. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a brilliant scientist relegated to lower-class jobs at textile mills while he works feverishly on a secret product that he believes will revolutionize the industry — and the world. After being fired by Michael Corland (Michael Gough) at one factory, Sid goes over to Birnley’s, run by Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker, whose voiceover narration begins and ends the film). As Sid develops his groundbreaking product, he also develops a liking for Birnley’s daughter, Daphne (Joan Greenwood), who is preparing to marry Corland. Meanwhile, tough-talking union leader Bertha (Vida Hope) also takes a shine to the absentminded chemist, who soon finds himself on the run, chased by just about everyone he’s ever met, not understanding why they all are so against him.

Guinness is at his goofy best as Sid, a loner obsessed with the challenge he has set for himself; his makeshift, Rube Goldberg-like chemistry sets are a riot, bubbling over with silly noises like they’re in a cartoon. But at the heart of the film lies some fascinating insight on the nature of big business that is still relevant today. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, The Man in the White Suit is an extremely witty film, expertly directed (and cowritten) by Mackendrick, who would go on to make such other great pictures as The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success. It’s easy to imagine that if someone in a textile mill today came up with a similar invention as Stratton’s, the same arguments against it would arise, suppressing progress in favor of personal interest and preservation.

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