Simon Heffer

The gentle art of murder

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Kind Hearts and Coronets

Michael Newton

BFI Film Classics, pp. 96, £

It often seems that more rubbish is written about the cinema than about almost any other art form. Since too many films are of questionable quality it is hardly surprising that much of what is printed about them is too. Good films, though, often fall victim to pretentious criticism by poseurs, and the greater a film is (or allegedly is) the worse this risk is, and the less original thought is applied to the received wisdom. Happily, one controversialist recently threw stones at Citizen Kane, which is almost compulsory as the Greatest Film Ever Made in tiresome lists on that subject, saying: yes, maybe it is, but what did it influence and what did it change?

Such lists, and indeed most mainstream criticism, regard the English cinema as a poor relation. When the British Film Institute compiled its list of 360 great films that required books such as Mr Newton has written, only two Ealing films were included. One was Went the Day Well?, the other was Kind Hearts and Coronets. The notion that there might be 358 films more deserving of detailed critical attention than Dead of Night, Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!, It Always Rains on Sunday, The Man in the White Suit or Hue and Cry should be an exciting one, but it isn’t. Instead, it should depress the intelligent cineaste that, presumably in the desire not to be thought parochial, or because of the British self-loathing that affects so much of our intelligentsia, the immense quality of those films should be overlooked. The golden age of the British cinema should now increasingly be seen to have assumed a cultural importance that extends beyond film and beyond these shores.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is perhaps the greatest ever British film: not just because of its intrinsic value as an entertainment, but because it is so unlike all that preceded it, and much that came after. In its differences from the mainstream it found the components not just of sheer quality, but of a strong emotional and cultural force. Like a great vintage port, it has a very different flavour now compared with what the public would have tasted on its release in June 1949. A rare shortcoming in this well-researched and thoughtful little book is the author’s failure to note the difference between this film as the entertainment it was conceived as and the historical document about a point in the national cultural development that it has now inevitably become.

For his opening, Mr Newton sensibly quotes the film’s producer, Robert Hamer, on the possibilities that presented themselves when he came to make the film: ‘Firstly, that of making a film not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language. Secondly, that of using this English language — in a more varied and, to me, more interesting way than I had previously had the chance of doing in a film. Thirdly, that of making a picture which paid no regard whatever to established, although not practised, moral convention.’ The key to Kind Hearts is the exceptional use of language: it is the most literate screenplay imaginable, written by Hamer and his colleague John Dighton. Mr Newton writes about Hamer’s alcoholism and rebelliousness, and this does indeed portend a cast of mind that would ignite the fires of originality with which this film burns. A more profound, though perhaps less exciting, angle is that Hamer was a highly educated man who made no compromises in displaying his intellect in his masterpiece. In seeking to show what he could do with the language, he succeeds.

Mr Newton makes the important comparison between the film and the book upon which it is based — Israel Rank, by the now forgotten Roy Horniman. Published in 1907, Israel Rank is the story of a half-Jewish man who murders his way to an earldom. As Mr Newton correctly points out, the book is not exactly funny. It is virulently anti-Semitic, its racism not redeemed (as Mr Newton thinks it might be) by Horniman’s admiration of Rank as a murderer. With the newsreels of Auschwitz still fresh in the memory when Kind Hearts was made, there was no question of following Horniman exactly. So the anti-hero became Louis Mazzini, half-Italian, he does not (as Rank does) murder a child, and he conducts himself with impeccably good manners and good humour throughout. Hamer does capture very much the tone and spareness of Horniman’s Edwardian prose, with an absence of cliché again unusual in films of the time, and with some stunning jokes. Because words and actions are constantly so understated, even the more comic of Mazzini’s murders are shocking. As well as this literary antecedent, there is an Ealing film of six years earlier that deals with the comedy of serial killing, and to which the author gives only a fleeting mention: Will Hay’s last and best film, My Learned Friend. Anyone who knows Hay’s film will realise the considerable debt Kind Hearts owes to it.

As well as analysing the film and explaining the director (and the Ealing set-up, under Sir Michael Balcon, from which it was bred), Mr Newton makes some considered judgments about the cast. He is surprisingly reticent about Alec Guinness, whose feat in playing eight members of the same family is the most celebrated fact about the film, but whose technique and range as an actor is little remarked upon. He correctly judges the brilliance of Valerie Hobson’s performance as the priggish, boring and puritanical Edith, though perhaps he should have drawn attention to the way in which this militant teetotaller has almost the funniest line in the film when, speaking of the village inn, she says she has had to have a word with the landlord about the amount of drinking that goes on there. He gets the point of Joan Greenwood, who plays the minx Sibella, who with Edith is the rival for Louis’s affections. But his greatest insight is about Dennis Price, who plays Mazzini. Price, a closet homosexual, acted offstage throughout his life. Mazzini is, as Mr Newton points out, constantly acting in his life. The son of a duke’s daughter (hence his claim to the title, since it descends also through the female line) and an Italian opera singer, Mazzini is unquestionably aspirational. He aspires to the highest rank not just in society, but in taste: hence the wit and precision of his language, his mask of sang-froid, his dandified clothes, his perfect manners. He has, though, learned to act all these things in the unsympathetic surroundings of suburban Clapham, and in the process he is determined, superficially, to make himself more noble than the old family at whose head he wishes to place himself. Oddly, and despite murdering half a dozen of his kinsmen, he does.

Although from time to time Mr Newton lapses into the sort of academic theses and language that will prove uncongenial to the general reader, he misses very little. Whether some of the high-flown themes and ideas that he imputes to Hamer were actually considered by him to be explicit in the film, or whether they arrived by accident, we do not know. In that regard the book occasionally reminds one why the study of English and drama in our universities is living on borrowed time, serving as a vehicle for the ideas of teachers rather than unravelling the real motivation of those who wrote the texts being studied. While he understands the irony of this mass-murderer representing all that is fine in taste and style, the author does not see the greater point that Mazzini becomes a vehicle for the highest expression of English literary culture, and what has always been understood to be the English aristocratic character. In that regard, this is one of the most English films ever made: English in more than the superficial sense of its setting, or its obsession with the class system. At a time when, in the fast-changing postwar world, the higher ground of our culture seemed under threat, this film claimed it, celebrated it, and in a way secured it. That a film about mass murder should achieve this is consistent with the English sense of humour that Kind Hearts so perfectly embodies.

It is also — and again, Mr Newton never says this so directly as he should — perhaps the most subversive film ever made here. Lindsay Anderson, who disliked Kind Hearts because he utterly failed to understand its reach and its subtleties, would have hoped that accolade would go to If; and other directors would point to films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with their loudnesses and destructiveness. Yet it was very easy to be subversive once censorship had been relaxed, and once society had undergone a revolution (as it already had by 1968, when If was released). To seek to subvert the class system, conventional sexual morality, the notion of the respect for human life, the rule of law and the teachings of the established Church without the backing of a popular movement and without uttering a single profanity or showing a glimpse of stocking was quite another thing altogether. As such, Kind Hearts is a monument to the subtlety of the English intellect, and a celebration of the highest incarnation of the national sense of humour. Balcon, who had a strait-laced view of what Ealing should do, was anxious about the film at first sight, and given the torpedo it puts through conventional values one cannot be surprised. Later, he said it was his favourite Ealing film, presumably having appreciated both its uniqueness and the immediate place it secured in our culture.

Mr Newton gives every indication of being alert to this, and no viewer of the film will fail to profit from it. He clearly understands the period in which the film was made, though perhaps fails to appreciate the poignancy of the late 1940s as perhaps the last high-watermark of an Anglo-Saxon culture. Within the same few weeks Ealing released this film, Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico. Waugh had published Brideshead four years earlier, in the same year as Britten’s Peter Grimes was first performed. The previous year had seen Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Vaughan Williams’s Sixth symphony. Kind Hearts was, and remains, one of the key achievements of what by any definition was a golden age, and what should artistically identify the immediate postwar period for us. It is not merely as significant a landmark in our culture as any of those other contemporaneous masterpieces: it has in its way become as necessary to the English heritage as St Paul’s Cathedral, the ‘Hay Wain’ or the Prayer Book. We have been slow to realise this, but Mr Newton’s appreciative book takes us significantly closer to grasping the point than we were.