If there is only one evergreen subject in entertainment for the past, oh, thousand or so years, it’s the pursuit of vengeance, from The Bible to The Oresteia to The Spanish Tragedy to… well, I’d know if I ever went to the movies these days.
I’ve been wronged. I’m hurting. I plan. I kill. Happy ending optional. Why do audiences never tire of this pattern?
Fortunately, I shan’t essay the burning question at length, though I surmise that we prefer to identify ourselves as victims (not victimizers) when we fantasize about eliminating our enemies. I will likewise note that hundreds, probably thousands, of successful plays, films, and television shows have cribbed this paradigm. Some have been insightful. Most have been bloody. Nearly all of them have been as dark as Hamlet’s pantaloons.
Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is far too well-bred for any of that. Airy, genteel, and soothing as tea in a summerhouse, this witty foray into Edwardian vengeance illustrates the truth of Thomas De Quicey’s argument in “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:
People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.
The puckish style of this black comedy from Ealing Studios would seem at odds with the Golgotha ambiance that we tend to associate with acts of revenge. Yet, far from declawing the horror of murder, this little movie, cherished as quaint and so veddy British, deserves praise for its pervasively tense and acidic comedy. It manages to sustain its satirical tone—but never falls into out-and-out parody—over two hours of joyful wickedness.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, does not require much explanation. Our sociopathic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (a lethally seductive Dennis Price) was raised by his disgraced aristocratic mother—exiled by her family for marrying an Italian opera singer—who taught her son to dream of reclaiming his birthright.
Once grown, Mazzini does exactly that, variously dispatching the relatives, the D’Ascoynes, who stand between him and the Duchy of Chalfont. Alec Guinness, equipped with his spirit gum, kit of mustaches, and genius for mimicry, gives life to each of these stodgy eccentrics.
The plot structure does not differ greatly from your average slasher film, in which, one by one, victims are bumped off in far-fetched and occasionally humorous ways. The film performs a delicate high-wire act between absurdity and genuine drama in a frilly parallel universe where, for instance, a pot of caviar might be loaded with explosives and a hot air balloon bearing a militant suffragette might hover precariously over London.
Yet, I would argue that Kind Hearts and Coronets is so unreal and refined that it paradoxically achieves one of the most calculated and disturbing portrayals of violence ever captured on film. Virtually every encounter we have with celluloid gore and viscera leaves us that much more jaded, inoculated by aesthetic violence against the real thing. And the closer the illusion comes to the real thing, the more the real thing has been betrayed.
By contrast, Kind Hearts and Coronets refines murder into an artful hobby, as fussy and picturesque as a doily on a parlor grand piano, to reveal how a killer can dissociate himself from the moral ramifications of his actions. We recognize how easily a ruthless mind can turn human lives into secondary concerns and seek refuge in “the alibi of art,” in the words of Roger Shattuck.
After all, the vast majority of the film takes place inside Louis Mazzini’s head, as he puts pen to paper and writes his memoirs on the eve of his execution. Director Hamer and cinematographer Roger Slocombe endow almost each frame of the movie with the compositional harmony and attention to detail of a quintessential period lithograph or sketch. This gracious, elliptical carnage represents not necessarily what happened, but rather how Louis chooses to portray his succession of killings.
That Renoir-esque boat, carrying two lovers, gliding past the camera towards a watery grave. That funny cloud of smoke coming over the garden wall which announces to Louis—and to the audience—that Henry D’Ascoyne has developed his last picture. That flurry of harp notes as Lady Agatha falls to earth from her balloon. All of these artistic touches romanticize Louis’s crimes, widening the gap between the beauty of what we see and the ugliness of revenge.
Plus, much of the film’s hilarity comes from the fact that Louis has to kill off not merely a half-dozen different people, but rather half-dozen people played by the same actor. As much as Guinness invests each of these portraits with a specific set of uncannily apt foibles, it’s still the same guy. We know this. That’s why we laugh. As eight D’Ascoynes die, we realize that there’s just one person behind it all. This comic effect, however, exposes another feature of Louis’s derangement: by his own admission, he has dehumanized his victims. They do not appear to him as individuals, but as embodiments of the family that wronged him, as different variations on the same target. In this light, the decision to have Guinness play eight roles seems a lot less like a gimmick and a good deal more like an astute psychological statement.
Indeed, Robert Hamer couches several important visual clues in the film’s opening that suggest the extent to which the humor and elegance of the murders are products of Louis’s warped intelligence and perceptions.
The beginning shots of the film, as a paunchy executioner approaches the prison doors and waddles with a warden to catch a glimpse of his “client” who will be hanged by a silken rope tomorrow. These shots, with their stark lighting and sparse mise-en-scene stand out from the light-dappled beauty and eye-catching richness of the rest of the film, the parts controlled by Louis’s recollections.
The executioner’s (and our) first peek at the mysterious murderer comes through a peep hole into his cell. There’s Louis Mazzini, sitting calmly at his desk, framed like a picture by a circular window. Then something strange happens—a jump cut without warning to a tight shot of the back of Louis’s head, straightening up, as though he intuited that he’s being watched.
Now, the first shot of Louis is a pretty clear point-of-view shot, but what are we to make of that second one, that puts us practically on top of Louis? In the cell with him? It might be a gruesome joke, a close shot of Louis’s neck, soon to be bound by a noose. I suspect that there’s more to it, though: an intimation of how the viewer will progressively enter Louis’s world and come to root for a multiple murderer.
Louis’s edifice of rationalizations lulls us into interpreting his life story as just that—a story, an adventure, a personal narrative. Even his imminent death for a crime he didn’t commit fails to shake us out of our intoxication with his vision of lyrical revenge. Only at the last moment of the film do we fully comprehend that we were listening to a confession. The unresolvable cliffhanger conclusion snaps us back to reality. Louis took the lives of six of his kin, and a few bystanders to boot, with absolutely no compunction. Those are the bare facts, as anyone who discovered that manuscript would read them. Our anxiety on Louis’s behalf confronts us with our complicity in his crimes.
Nowadays, a sympathetic multiple murderer may fail to shock our blunted moral sensibilities (au contraire, it actually seems to be the key ingredient for a hit television show). However, in 1949, let us remember, a hero as villainous as Louis would not have been common onscreen, despite his distinguished literary antecedents, particularly in England due to the strength of censorship.
Our voyage through the sunny consciousness of a psychopath proves so enchanting largely because of Dennis Price’s astonishing charm. Price, an underrated actor if ever there was one, grew up in an upper class family and invests Louis with an almost supernatural poise. He need only blink his impossibly long eyelashes at the audience and we know exactly what dastardly ironic thoughts are circulating in that superior brain of his. Consider the sly glance Louis barely avoids giving the camera when his employer, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, pulls out the family tree and proceeds to give him a lesson—when Louis could draw the whole thing from memory. In this movie, Price’s face is like a Paganini caprice played on a Stradivarius: dazzlingly, diabolically complex.
In his own way, Louis Mazzini is a true aristocrat, more of a D’Ascoyne than all of the other D’Ascoynes put together. Traditional noblemen were not cuddly people. Today’s royals may warm our hearts with their stiffly magnanimous little waves and conspicuous displays of largesse, but the axe-wielding chieftains who won these privileges for them would hardly recognize their descendants. Kind Hearts and Coronets playfully hints at this discrepancy between past and present aristos in the scene where the Duke gives Louis a tour through the antique instruments of war that line the walls of Chalfont. Louis can hardly lift one grisly iron broadsword.
The founders of great families acquired their power through unimaginable brutality or sickening crimes against their own flesh and blood. The film’s alternate title “Noblesse Oblige,” a phrase that encapsulates the duties and burdens of nobility, not only refers to Louis’s blue-blooded mien, but also obliquely alludes to the barbaric duties of this perfect gentleman.