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Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)


Main image of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
35mm, black and white, 106 mins
Directed byRobert Hamer
Production CompanyEaling Studios
Produced byMichael Balcon
Screenplay byRobert Hamer, John Dighton
Original novelRoy Horniman
CinematographyDouglas Slocombe

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini/Louis' father); Valerie Hobson (Edith D'Ascoyne); Joan Greenwood (Sibella Holland); Alec Guinness (Ethelred D'Ascoyne, Duke of Chalfont/Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne/Rev Lord Henry D'Ascoyne/General Rufus D'Ascoyne/Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne/young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne/young Henry D'Ascoyne/Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne)

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Louis is shunned by his family, the noble and snobbish d'Ascoynes, as a result of his mother's marriage to a foreign commoner. After his mother's death, Louis becomes determined to inherit the family title, even if he has to murder his entire family in the process.

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Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) was the only Ealing comedy directed by Robert Hamer, and the critical and commercial highpoint of Hamer's troubled but often brilliant career. Adapted by Hamer and John Dighton from Israel Rank, a relatively little-known (but not as obscure as some have claimed) Edwardian novel by Roy Horniman, the film brilliantly taps a rich vein of black humour largely neglected in British films since Hitchcock.

Alec Guinness's attention-grabbing performance - as all eight members of the doomed aristocratic d'Ascoyne family - tends to overshadow the masterful playing of Dennis Price as the frustrated lower middle-class Louis Mazzini (and, briefly, as Louis's father), who coolly murders his way to the dukedom denied him by the D'Ascoynes' snobbery and rejection of his mother. Similarly impressive is Joan Greenwood as Sibella, whose self-serving deviousness matches Louis's own.

The story is narrated in flashback by Louis, in a letter written from his prison cell. Far from undermining the visual storytelling, the conceit shows us the world as Louis sees it, with detached self-justification, allowing us to share the joy of each successive murder, while not blinding us to Louis's own callousness.

Hamer later listed among his aims, "that of using the English language, which I love, in a more varied and, to me, more interesting way than I had previously had the chance of doing in a film", and Kind Hearts abounds with clever wordplay and literary allusion. Louis' wry comment, after puncturing Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne's hot-air balloon, wittily appropriates Longfellow: "I shot an arrow in the air / She fell to earth in Berkeley Square." Elsewhere, the film alludes to Shakespeare, Chaucer and Tennyson, whose lines "Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood" provide its title.

The film has barely dated, despite being the only period piece among the Ealing comedies, thanks to its cynical wit, its radical criticism of England's stifling class system, the subtle eroticism of Louis and Sibella's relationship and the brilliantly ambiguous ending (which was too much for the American censor, who demanded changes).

Although Ealing boss Michael Balcon later listed the film among his favourites, his attitude at the time was apparently more hostile, and Hamer was denied the chance to follow up with a long-cherished project set in the West Indies. He directed only one more film at Ealing, the disappointing His Excellency (1952).

Mark Duguid

*This film is the subject of a BFI Film Classics book by Michael Newton.

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Video Clips
1. A Plan Forms (3:38)
2. Louis and Sibella (1:41)
3. Second Victim (1:14)
4. A Funeral (1:03)
5. Blackmail (3:04)
Original poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
School for Scoundrels (1959)
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)
Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)
Griffith, Hugh (1912-1980)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Hamer, Robert (1911-63)
Hobson, Valerie (1917-1998)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Tanner, Peter (1914-2002)
Costume Drama
Ealing Comedy