Kind Hearts and Coronets

Or, Art and Artifice

In the most recent New Yorker (the 12/2/19 issue), a review by Anthony Lane of the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, in a new print, now showing in NYC. Lane’s last paragraph:

If you are unfamiliar with “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” the question is not whether making the trip to Film Forum [209 W. Houston St. in Greenwich Vilage, showings of KH&C 11/27 through 12/5] to see it is worth your while. The question is how stiff a penalty should be levied upon you by the City of New York should you fail to do so. My personal view is that a brief prison sentence would not be too harsh. There really is no excuse.

Anthony Lane has spoken; listen to the man. (Sadly, I have had to resign myself to watching a DVD of an earlier print.)

The body of Lane’s review, with what I view as the crucial sentence in boldface:

Robert Hamer’s merciless masterpiece of 1949, set in Edwardian England, and screening in a new print at Film Forum, is nothing if not pragmatic. The cure for [social] inequality, according to this film, is serial assassination.

Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, whose beloved mother, having married beneath her, was cast aside by the noble clan to which she had the honor to belong. After she dies, Louis decides to hallow her memory by sidling back into the family and becoming the Duke of Chalfont: a simple task, slightly impeded by those tiresome souls whose claim is more immediate than his — or, as he calls them, “monsters of arrogance and cruelty, whose only function in the world was to deprive me of my birthright.” Working through the list, and slaying them one by one, will not be a problem. Why should it be? What counts is the manner of slaughter, and — this being the most courteous of films — the vital importance of never mislaying one’s cool. Also, not a droplet of blood must be shown. That would be intolerably vulgar.

The movie is famed for many reasons, eight of them being the characters played by Alec Guinness. Think of the Cheshire Cat leaving eight separate smiles in the air.

Given that Hamer was gay and alcoholic — not the most comfortable of compounds, in postwar Britain — it is, perhaps, little surprise that “Kind Hearts and Coronets” should have endured as the locus classicus of subterfuge, deceit, and the charm of the unspoken. I regard it as the best Oscar Wilde film ever made, despite its not being adapted from Wilde. Drownings, explosions, and poisonings, their ethical status barely mentioned, let alone chastised, roll by like carriages in the park. The comedy is as black as widow’s weeds. Artfulness is all.

Artifice. Showing art or cleverness in presentation. The word can cut two ways. The NOAD entry:

noun artifice: clever or cunning devices or expedients, especially as used to trick or deceive others: the style is not free from the artifices of the period | artifice and outright fakery. ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense ‘workmanship’): from Old French, from Latin artificium, based on arsart- ‘art’ + facere ‘[to] make’.

Negatively, we have fakery, trickery, deceit, deception, pretense, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting, several of which play signifcant roles both in Kind Hearts and Coronets and in Wilde’s masterpiece of artifice, the stage play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Positively, we have imitation and concealment as art forms, in which matters are presented with a double vision, an ornamental, admirable superficial one and a hidden one that is merely ordinary, so that the superficial version is more attractive or more interesting; or might be scandalous or in some other way blemished, so that the superficial version conceals it. But in positive artifice, both visions are supposed to be available to at least some significant part of the audience; we are meant to appreciate the artistry. We are meant to understand that those rhinestones aren’t diamonds, but also to admire their beauty.

And we’re meant to see that Louis Mazzini has created a convincing noble identity for himself, despite his very humble origins (and, on the negative side, that he’s had an enormously successful career as a serial murderer). And, one level up, we’re also meant to admire the impersonations of the various D’Ascoynes by the actor Alec Guinness.

Creative artifice is often seen as a specialty of gay and bisexual men, who are accustomed to adopting masks of normality to conceal the subterranean world of their sexual desires, where they might have secret lovers, hire male prostitutes, and engage in anonymous sex in hidden but nominally public places (mensrooms, parks, secret sex clubs, etc.) — a world familiar to Wilde and to Hamer (and apparently to Guinness as well).

Odds and ends about KH&C.

— The plot is loosely based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman.

— The movie is one of the Ealing comedies. From Wikipedia:

The Ealing comedies is an informal name for a series of comedy films produced by the London-based Ealing Studios during the period 1947 to 1957. Hue and Cry (1947) is generally considered to be the earliest of the cycle, and Barnacle Bill (1957) the last, although some sources list Davy (also 1957) as the final Ealing comedy.

… Many of the films were built around a repertory group of actors, screenwriters, directors and technicians.

Hamer was one of the regular directors, and Guinness one of the regular actors.

My home collection of DVDs contains six Ealing comedies, all but the first starring Guinness:

Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit(1951), The Ladykillers (1955)

— On the title, which introduces the theme of class conflict that lies at the heart of the film, from Wikipedia:

“Lady Clara Vere de Vere” is an English poem written by Alfred Tennyson, part of his collected Poems published in 1842. The poem is about a lady in a family of aristocrats, and includes numerous references to nobility, such as to earls or coats of arms. One such line from the poem goes, “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.” This line gave the title to the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

— On the name Mazzini, which is surely no accident, indexing the overthrow of the ruling classes, from Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Mazzini (22 June 1805 – 10 March 1872) was an Italian politician, journalist, activist for the unification of Italy, and spearhead of the Italian revolutionary movement. His efforts helped bring about the independent and unified Italy in place of the several separate states, many dominated by foreign powers, that existed until the 19th century. He also helped define the modern European movement for popular democracy in a republican state.

— And the Mozart aria that introduces the film, as sung by Louis Mazzini’s father, an Italian opera singer who died soon after Louis’s birth, Louis’s mother having been disowned by her noble family for marrying beneath her station. With this, the revenge theme. From Wikipedia:

“Il mio tesoro” (or “Il mio tesoro intanto”) is an aria for lyric tenor voice from scene 2 in act 2 of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It is often performed in recitals and featured in anthologies of music for tenor. In the aria, Don Ottavio, a young nobleman, urges the listener to assure his (the nobleman’s) beloved fiancée, Donna Anna, that he intends to secure vengeance for her against the man who murdered her father.

Discussion of the aria in my 5/28/19 posting “Why is he calling her his thesaurus?”. The lyrics, with a pretty literal translation from Wikipedia:

Il mio tesoro intanto
andate a consolar,
E del bel ciglio il pianto
cercate di asciugar.

Ditele che i suoi torti
a vendicar io vado;
Che sol di stragi e morti
nunzio vogl’io tornar.

My treasure, meanwhile,
Go and console.
And from her beautiful eyes, the tears,
Try to wipe away.

Tell her that the wrongs against her,
I’m going to avenge,
That only of killing and death
As announcer will I return.

All this is already in the first moments of the film. There’s much, much more, little touches woven artfully into the production, which is a triumph of wry understatement in the telling of a preposterous and wickedly funny tale.

One Response to “Kind Hearts and Coronets”

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