Director: Robert Hamer
Produced by: Michael Balcon and Michael Relph
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Distributed by: General Film Distributors
Screenplay: Robert Hamer and John Dighton
Adapted from the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal
by Roy Horniman
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Original Score: Ernest Irving
Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) is the most delicious concoction ever produced by Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios, and it is my favorite British film. With exquisitely intelligent and stylish direction by Robert Hamer, from a screenplay that he wrote with John Dighton (“The Man in the White Suit” and “Roman Holiday”), it flows like dark chocolate over a mouthwatering sundae.
The film stars the deliciously urbane Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini, a lowly draper’s assistant who finds himself distantly in line for a dukedom. Infuriated by this aristocratic family’s cruel treatment of his mother, he turns into a serial killer, setting out to systematically murder everyone ahead of him in line to the seat of D’Ascoyne-Chalfont.
Alec Guinness has fun playing all eight (and two generations) of the unfortunate D’Ascoynes, the older generation offering a delicious tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the professions favored by the male members of the British upper classes in the Edwardian era. By the time Louis finds himself in the employ of the Banker, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the first of Louis’ casualties, has already died in a boating accident. The names of Louis victims and their method of dispatch are as follows:
Ethelred D’Ascoyne, 8th Duke of Chalfont (hunting accident)
The Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne (poisoned)
The General, Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne (bomb)
The Admiral, Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne. (Goes down with his ship)
Louis’s employer and the final victim is the banker, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne. He dies of shock on learning that he is the last D’Ascoyne standing.
Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, Ethelred’s sister, is a militant suffragette whom Louis shoots down from her warm air balloon while she is distributing leaflets over London.
The younger generation consists of the philandering Young Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, whose arrogance causes Louis to get fired from his original draper’s assistant position and whose drowning sets Louis’ killing spree in motion. Then, the one good egg in the basket, Young Henry D’Ascoyne, is married to the beautiful Edith. His passion for amateur photography allows Louis to switch some chemicals in his darkroom, leading to death by explosion.
Joan Greenwood and Valerie Hobson
However, Price is the star of “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” helped immeasurably by his two magnificent leading ladies. First, we have the plum-voiced Joan Greenwood as that little minx Sibella, her every utterance at once an aphrodisiac and a condemnation. And then there is Valerie Hobson, never better as the pure-at-heart Edith D’Ascoyne, widow of Young Henry D’Ascoyne and the person on whom Louis sets his sights to marry.
Finally, there is the great Miles Matheson, who has a few classic moments as the hangman. He cannot believe that he will hang a duke and wants to find out how he should behave in his presence.
Douglas Slocombe’s stunning black-and-white cinematography marked a visual peak for Ealing.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Both Robert Hamer and Dennis Price had alcoholism, and both of their careers peaked with this movie.
Valerie Hobson found herself in a life-imitating art scenario when she stood by her husband, the disgraced politician John Profumo, during the scandal of 1963.
Depending on the film’s cut, you may or may not get a brief glimpse of Guinness as a ninth D’Ascoyne, the 7th Duke of Chalfont, Etheired’s father, in a brief flashback.
Leeds Castle in Kent was used for Chalfont, the family home.
The film’s title comes from the antepenultimate stanza of the poem “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” by Lord Alfred Tennyson, published in 1842:
“However it be / it seems to me, / ’Tis only noble to be good. / Kind hearts are more than coronets, / And simple faith than Norman blood,”
Alec Guinness as eight members of the D’Ascoyne family:
Ethelred D “Ascoyne, 8th Duke of Chalfont
The Reverend, Lord Henry D’Ascoyne
General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne
Admiral, Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne
Banker, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Louis’ Employer)
Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, Ethelred’s sister
Young Ascoyne D’Ascoyne
Young Henry D’Ascoyne
Valerie Hobson as Edith
Joan Greenwood as Sibella
Miles Matheson as the hangman
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