Much of the fun in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" comes from watching Alec Guinness ham it up--but with style, a restrained, very British style.
It's been said that this 1949 black comedy was so popular in England and Guinness' performance such a favorite, it helped transform him from a respected actor to a legitimate movie star, a performer with dependable box office charisma.
The rising appeal of Guinness, who had success on the stage and in more serious films but with varying commercial force, came in part from the public's romance with the masquerade and the quick-change artist. "Kind Hearts," which screens at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center tonight, let him toy with one identity after another, an opportunity he apparently found rousing.
Made by the famous Ealing Studios--the London company known for its defiantly British dramas and dry, highbrow laughers, the blacker the better--"Kind Hearts" offered Guinness eight supporting roles, a mix of stereotypes that needed personality to connect with an audience. They found it in Guinness' crafty acting.
The film, in keeping with Ealing tradition, is low-key and probably stuffy by American standards. Director Robert Hamer's pacing toddles more than runs and the black-and-white cinematography is dull, muted--a lot of claustrophobic interior shots; even the outdoor scenes feel closeted. But Guinness' satiric sketches of English aristocracy, and some finely tuned ensemble acting, are worth savoring.
Hamer's screenplay moseys around a cockeyed theme of homicide and revenge, tightly held by a chokehold on the pretension and privilege of the upper classes. Guinness becomes every member of the d'Ascoyne family, unknowingly stalked by a murderous young noble played with amazing civility by Dennis Price.
Price's targets run the gamut. There's the arrogant country squire with an appetite for the ladies and the starchy suffragette with a fondness for hot-air ballooning. There's the wimpy amateur photographer who loves to drink and the doddering priest who likes to babble on. The stupid sea captain (he doesn't know his port from his starboard), the imperious general, the constipated businessman and the duke himself, a blank-faced, blank-minded sort.
By using a minimum of makeup and scene chewing (even when in drag), and instead relying on the sly gesture and inflection, Guinness gives the movie much of its comic accent, even though he's usually playing off Price, the movie's designated star.
Price has fun too. His Louis, the family outcast who wants to usurp the d'Ascoyne dukedom by eliminating all heirs to their fortune, is restrained and dreamy, reflecting on how to go about all this nasty business. Fatal river currents, vials of poison, even a well-aimed arrow figure into the carnage, all accompanied by Hamer's sardonic, epigrammatic dialogue.
The two actors find a comfortable rhythm, even making homicide a relaxed joke. You smile at how easily all these self-absorbed d'Ascoynes are out-maneuvered--Guinness gives even the likable ones a fatal air of superiority that has us rooting for Louis to achieve his ends.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets" screens tonight at 7:30 at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Tickets: $5. (714) 738-6595.