Saturday, May 2, 2009

Day Ninety-Seven: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - Rank 4.5/5

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Never heard of the film, you say? Need convincing? Four words for you: Alec Guinness in drag. In fact, Guinness plays not only the role of a women's rights activist and septuagenarian, but he also tackles seven other roles. The feat of playing multiple roles in a film has become a novelty in this day and age, with Eddie Murphy playing every role imaginable in his films (because no one else can stand being around him, much less work alongside the doofus). Guinness not only plays the entire D'Ascoyne family with ease, but he might hold the record for being the first individual to pull off the feat in a film.

The film opens in the cell of Duke Louis D'Ascoyne (Dennis Price) the evening before his hanging. The Duke reflects back on the events that led to his imprisonment - namely the methodical murder of his entire family in an effort to claim his title of "duke" at a young enough age to enjoy it. Guinness plays each target with tongue-in-cheek fervor, and while you want to root for the narrator in his quest to achieve his title after all the wrongdoings committed against him and his mother, you hate to see another one of Guinness' delightful characters bite the dust.

Apart from an excellent script and superb acting, the film is a technical achievement as well. There are several shots where all of Guinness' multiple characters appear on screen at once. I found myself straining to see some "split screen" evidence on the print, but if it was there, I could not discern it. While the film's major theme is revenge (and a semi-selfish revenge, at that), it's never overbearing. Louis dispenses his estranged family with a noblesse oblige attitude - and to me, there's definitely something darkly humorous behind a character maintaining civility and etiquette while murdering one person after the next. It's almost like a PG-rated, opulent Hannibal Lechter...but without the cannibalism. But I suppose that's not a fair comparison, for "Silence of the Lambs" didn't feature Alec Guinness in drag. Good thing, too. While the idea of Guinness in the role of Buffalo Bill is certainly a funny one, once you calculate how old he would have been in 1991 and imagine him doing the same, strip tease dance number from the end of the film, the humor quickly fades. Why did I just conjure up that mental image? Oh, I'm going to have the nastiest nightmare tonight...

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