Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder

[These are some notes for the benefit of anyone approaching the film for the first time. I wrote them for an introduction to a screening of the film for first-year undergraduates. You may find some plot spoilers within; nothing too disastrous to your enjoyment, but you might want to avoid reading further until you’ve seen the film.]

It’s a poised, pristine, perfectly paced comedy of manners full of precise etiquette and immaculate decor. But it’s also a film about a serial killer, in which the details of murderous schemes are laid out with no less care than the arrangement of a a drawing room or the delicacy of a gentleman’s handwriting. As such, what seems like a prim costume drama is actually an unsettling cynic’s charter with a wicked kicker of an ending. Lindsay Anderson found it “emotionally quite frozen”, perhaps missing the point that its discomforting chill comes from what it says about society’s replacement of feeling with gesture, romantic love with strategic connubiality. Here’s the plot synopsis as published by Monthly Film Bulletin in 1949:

Comedy Thriller. Louis Mazzini is the son of an English mother and an Italian father; his mother was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Chalfont, his father an impecunious singer who died at Louis’ birth. Because the family refused to allow Louis’ mother to be buried in the family vault Louis vows vengeance, and contrives the disappearance of eight of the heirs who stand between him and the dukedom.

Kind Hearts and CoronetsThe film begins in the prison where Mazzini is awaiting execution. The executioner has come to meet him prior to the ceremony. During chit-chat with one of the guards, he treats the impending killing with the professional nonchalance of one who has roped and broken a fair few necks in his time, but announces that he will soon retire since “after using silken rope, I’ll never again be content with hemp” (his jaded fastidiousness can’t help but bring to mind England’s most famous hangman of the age, Albert Pierrepoint). Kind Hearts sets out its stall right from the start: this will be a chirpy discussion of terrible things, but the casual treatment of death when sanctioned by the state foreshadows the air of entitlement and purposeful diligence with which Mazzini sets about dispatching his victims. The executioner’s fuss over the details is an early indicator of the part that will be played by manners, tradition and ceremony in the ensuing (though told in flashback) story. He is about to put Mazzini to death, but still stumbles over the question of how to address the Duke correctly in his final hours.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Those final hours of life will be spent penning his memoirs which, despite the pressing deadline, he does with the utmost formality, his desk neatly arranged in an effort to maintain decorum in the most definitively degraded situation. What follows is Mazzini’s narration of the events which have apparently led to his incarceration. Over the course of this tale, he will have directly or indirectly caused the deaths of eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, out of whose dukedom he feels himself cheated, and he will also have created for himself a difficult dilemma over two women. Sibella, the original, aloof object of his affections (Joan Greenwood, whose voice suits the film perfectly by coupling an accent of fine breeding with the timbre of filth) is contrasted with Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of his victims, who represents the wise choice in terms of his will to reinsert himself into the branches of the family tree. He thus has to choose between dull and unchallenging breeding with Edith, or the elicit eroticism of Sibella, between functional or recreational sex. Their juxtaposed images aligns one with society and the law (note the crowds and the policeman behind Edith on the left), the other with exclusion (note the air of funereal isolation around Sibella on the right).

Edith (Valerie Hobson) Sibella (Joan Greenwood)

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Where did this film come from? The short answer is Ealing Studios, but I’m afraid that there are rarely any short answers on this blog. Even if you’re not acquainted with the films themselves, you’ve probably heard the affection with which Ealing comedies are cited as treasured relics of British culture. It’s not true that Ealing made only comedies (see Went the Day Well?, in which a village community repels Nazi invaders, the crime melodrama It Always Rains on Sunday and the self-explanatory Scott of the Antarctic for proof of this), but some of their best and brightest achievements, including Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore (both of which came out just months prior to Kind Hearts, an extraordinarily rich creative stretch), The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, are undoubtedly the comic ones, and these comprise the popular image of what Ealing represented. The building which still houses Ealing studios in west London is the oldest studio facility in Britain, having been in use since 1896, but it only became known as Ealing Studios from 1931. In his important study, Charles Barr pretends to invent a classic Ealing comedy plot (actually a synopsis of 1939’s Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon, who took over from theatre producer Basil Dean in 1938 and changed the company’s name from the less catchy Associated Talking Pictures to match the name of the studio facility itself):

A big brewery tries to absorb a small competitor, a family firm which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The offer is gallantly refused, whereupon the boss’s son goes incognito from the big firm to infiltrate the small one and sabotage its fortunes. Gradually, he is charmed by the family brewery and by the daughter of the house, saves the company from ruin, and marries into it. Officials and workers unite at the wedding banquet to drink the couple’s health in a specially created brew.

From this you might infer that Ealing made films about underdogs battling big business, defending their communities from engulfment by homogenising external forces. Jeffrey Richards has noted how the Ealing approach transformed from films built around individual comic talents such as Will Hay and George Formby, towards ensemble casts depicting tightly packed communities. In Passport to Pimlico, for example, the locals discover documents revealing that Pimlico is legally part of Burgundy, and that they, as an independent dukedom, are not subject to the strictures of postwar rationing. Asserting their separateness, and isolated by the British government, this London district becomes the site of a contest over national borders and identity. As Christine Geraghty has highlighted:

The people of Pimlico become the people of a misplaced bit of Burgundy – foreigners in their own land – so that opposition to the British state is no longer a question of grumbling but is legally demanded. The film’s major fantasy is a return to wartime unity, which of course involves an increase in restriction. But this fantasy is predicated on another: that the state can be restored to its wartime role of representing and protecting the people rather than bullying them. Passport to Pimlico mourns the loss of Ealing’s wartime myth that the people were the state and offers a reluctant recognition, through its use of fantasy, that this equation can no longer be assumed.

But Richard Dacre has suggested that what we think of as the Ealing house style is actually the individual concern of screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke, the “architect of Ealing’s popular image of cosy whimsicality”; the films he wrote “depict a Britain of shopkeepers, friendly spivs, jolly coppers, incompetent but honest bureaucrats, kind-hearted squires, contented old-age pensioners and eccentrics”, while the works of Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer (including Kind Hearts) offer “a dark commentary on those values”.

Ealing comedies poked fun at the foibles and idiosyncraises of Brits and their institutions, rather flattering them with the attention that comes from noticing their nuances in the first place. It was a gentle attack; Michael Balcon claimed that:

We had great affection for British institutions: the comedies were done with affection, and I don’t think we would have thought of tearing down institutions unless we had a blueprint for what we wanted to put in their place […] The comedies were a mild protest, but not protests at anything more sinister than the regimentation of the times.

Kind Hearts and Coronets may be different. It still has a keen eye for body language and a keener ear for verbal stratagems (there is, for instance, a razor sharp Wildean paradox  in the line “it is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”, or the moment when he notes, without a whiff of irony, his distaste for bloodsports). Tim Pulleine notes that this is sourer than its precursors and the films that followed it:

Crucially, this is a film that centres on that most English, but generally un-Ealing, preoccupation of class distinction, and although the plot is motivated by revenge for class-based snobbery, the impulse that sustains it is far from a democratic one. Moreover, it is defiantly amoral.

So, when you’re wondering who to cheer for, be prepared for a film that gives you no easy target for your sympathies. You might find some of the minor characters endearing, but they’re usually made unpleasant or daft in some way. Take for example, the eight characters played by Alec Guinness, all of whom will be bumped off or die of shock or some such. All of them can be seen in this immaculate trick shot:

Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness

No, look at the above image again. That’s a whole crowd of Alec Guinnesses composited into a single frame. It is that rare thing – a perfect special effect. Aided by great costumes and make-up, Guinness gives each character, however briefly they appear, a virtuoso twist of individuality, but the decision to cast one actor for them all creates a striking line-up of genetic stagnation. Their family is thus a stronghold of genealogical purity, inviting the heroic charge of an underdog outsider. Mazzini will infiltrate this familial fortress with his foreign blood (his father was Italian, his mother (conspicuously not played by Guinness) disowned by the D’Ascoynes for marrying him).

Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec GuinnessKind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness

The sense of Mazzini’s murders as distressing crimes is lessened by this depiction of the D’Ascoyne family as a privileged superorganism whose parts were merely expendable appendages of a bigger beast. But it might also be a disturbing picture of class warfare – attacking an entrenched aristocracy requires blindness to the individual rights of the persons who comprise it – and the winner does not overturn the system, but merely takes up the same position at its head. Mazzini longs to occupy, not demolish the manor he sees as his birthright. In the earliest scenes of his backstory, the sets are cramped and humble. He has his eye on the open spaces and and high ceilings of Chalfont, gazing repeatedly at a picture of his future home (on the back of which he crosses off the family members as they fall).

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His story takes him from small house to enormous house and ends up in the big house (that’s “prison” for those who aren’t as good at slang as what I is), while the mise-en-scene and visual style of the film obligingly conform to his version of the tale: there are no attempts to aesthetically pass judgement on the evil of it all with foreboding shadows or distorted angles. His narration is in control. As Michael Newton puts it:

Louis is a man without depths. His meaning exists on the surface: of clothes, of manners, of wit. When the mask slips, only anger and inner confusion appear. Behind the apparent politeness is the real confusion of evil: the evil that cannot distinguish one woman from another, or one victim from another. The film brings together a love of the surface (the well-litness of the film is its ironic undermining of film noir – evil is best understood in the light) and the use of the supposedly ‘literary’ device of the voiceover (actually a cinematic coup). Both are ideal expressions of Louis’s shallow, empty evil. The film’s love of style, the way in which everything shrinks to a style, is actually the moral meaning of the film. This is what happens, it tells us, when everything becomes just style: murder becomes a comedy; people become things. And in believing that, Louis is us all: the modern flirt; the addict of cool.

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Positioning himself close enough to the family to kill them requires Mazzini to assume a range of disguises, all of which he pulls off by feigning the correct codes of conduct for each situation. Rather than etiquette being a gestural manifestation of good character, in Kind Hearts and Coronets it is a mask for malicious intent, wicked innuendo or hypocrisy.

Even when Mazzini’s emotional life is probed, it’s hard to find him in moments where he doesn’t peer out from behind a veneer of respectability. Best evidence of this is to be find in the curiously drawn courtship (which we are led to believe is consummated on a regular basis) with Sibella. It’s a strange love affair, he being a mass murderer and she a skittish, changible, permanently pouting and petulant child-woman (did I mention she also has an unfeasibly sexy voice?).

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The formation of the romantic couple is usually the driving force of narrative cinema. It’s what creates a backdrop of suspense, marks the fulfilment of a conclusion and lets you hope for a better life for your protagonists. But it’s hard to really hope these two will get together. She has little interest in him until he holds a dukedom, and his yearning for her is too closely linked to his desire for Chalfont to be wholly admirable. It’s not clear whether it is vengeance for the slight on his mother’s honour that drives him to serial murder, or his wish to prove his suitability to Sibella. For her part, she seems to find her devious intent out of boredom, or perhaps even to prevent Mazzini from taking up his title without her. She’d destroy him before seeing him succeed on his own.

Like the film itself, I’m stuck for a conclusion to this post. I don’t want to give too much away by discussing the ending, except to say that it is perfectly inconclusive, refusing to allow the simple closures that are left just within reach to stamp the film with a definitive attitudinal stance on the crimes of its protagonist. But the film’s knives in the heart of heritage cinema and costume drama are there to delight anyone who is just happy to see a mockery of mannerism. I referred earlier to Kind Hearts as a cynic’s charter. I think therefore that I’m in agreement with Michael Newton, to whom I hand over the final word:

Kind Hearts is a great work of art, and if art matters then it matters. It is very funny and, in a demonically subtle way, very wise. And for the bitter, the easy self-deprecators, the procrastinators, the snobs, the junkies of possibility, the flirts, the wits, the wastrels, the overly wordy, for all those it is perhaps the perfect movie. It is not a film for the humble or the dull. They are too good to need it. For the rest of us, it is both the disease and the cure.

Further Reading:

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10 thoughts on “Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder

  1. Great post. I really should watch this again – it’s been far too long… Just realised that my favourite Ealing films are in fact the defiant non-comedies: the brilliant Went the Day Well & almost-brilliant It Always Rains on Sunday. Perhaps that says something about my taste…

    I wish British cinema was like the 1940s now: all those P&P and Jennings masterpieces, Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive, good Leans (This Happy Breed & The Passionate Friends), etc…

  2. Went the Day Well is great because it’s structured and characterised just like one of the comedies. But there are no jokes.

    And don’t forget Champagne Charlie (most people do), Cavalcanti’s musical hall comedy. It’s not very funny (ironically, I suspect, for a film about comedians), but the cinematography and period detail are astonishing. I would have leaned towards The Ladykillers in the past, but having just watched it again I reckon Kind Hearts is the highpoint of Ealing’s output. But I haven’t seen St. Trinian’s yet….

  3. Loved this post; like Matthew I want to watch it again write now! It has always been my favourite Ealing film.

    (By the way, sorry to be pedantic but you might want to change “The building which still houses Ealing studios in west London is the oldest in Britain” to “The building which still houses Ealing studios in west London is the oldest purpose-built studio in Britain” or something equivalent. I believe that you might be able to find some older buildings around in this country somewhere. :-))

    • Hester, thanks for the free copy editing!As Louis Mazzini might have said, pedantry is what separates us from the lower life-forms. After a little research, I can confirm that there were indeed more than twenty or so buildings in Britain prior to 1896. I’ve amended my massive historical typo.

      This was screened for first-year students this morning, so I’d be interested to see whether it can still sway a crowd, or whether it really is becoming a quaint relic. I reckon it’s a good corrective to any straight-faced heritage drama.

  4. Thanks, Doc. Glad you like it. Great film to rewatch – sometimes it seems so familiar that it becomes part of the cultural wallpaper, but maybe that’s it’s sharpest weapon: it looks and acts like a respectable heritage drama until you notice the killing.

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