The impoverished Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), lives with his mother in the humble surroundings of south west London, whilst his relations, the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family (all eight members played by Alec Guinness), exist in varying degrees of stately decadence far removed from the trials and tribulations of the everyday man. The family disowned Louis' mother when she married, as they saw, beneath her, and as a result cut Louis out of his inheritance and eventual succession to the dukedom. When his mother dies Louis decides to take revenge upon the family whom he sees as having 'murdered' his mother.
Kind Hearts and Coronets, first released in 1949, simply improves with age and viewing. It is pure, cinematic gold. That it can be taken on several levels, comedy, social commentary or horror means that no matter how many times you have seen it, there is always a new gem to be discovered.
As a comedy it is as black as they come. The witticisms which make this a humorous masterpiece literally fall over themselves, and Robert Hamer and John Dighton's screenplay based on the novel by Roy Horniman is as sharp today as when the film was first released sixty years ago. Take the rhyme Louis quips as he shoots down the hot air balloon in which his relation the insufferable suffragette Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne is flying in, "he shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkley Square". Sheer bliss.
Or his snappy repost to Sibella's (Joan Greenwood) description of the tediousness of her honeymoon with her new husband Lionel, whom she began to regret marrying before they'd even left the altar.
"Every time I wanted to go shopping Lionel dragged me off to a church or a picture gallery. Said he wanted to improve his mind."
"He has room to do so!"
However it is not just these acidic one liners, but also its depiction of social mores, which lift the film from the realm of simply another, all be it classic, period British film. The performances of the cast, both the leads, Price and Guinness, and the marvellous support from Joan Greenwood as the childhood friend who becomes Louis' lover and goes on to orchestrate his downfall when he spurns her advances, and Valerie Hobson as the widow of one of Louis' victims who eventually marries him (after a suitable period of mourning of course), are effortless and should be obligatory viewing for all aspiring actors. Guinness undoubtedly steals his scenes - his ability to imbue each of the eight members of the ghastly D'Ascoyne family with enough individuality to make the viewer forget that they're all played by one man, is a lasting testament to the skill and ability which made him one of cinemas greatest practitioners.
Perhaps more than Guinness however, it is Price's performance as the icily aloof Louis, a scheming and heartless social climber, which is what, when it boils down to it, all he really is, that stays in the mind long after the film has ended. That his character believes it just to mete out retribution on his relations because of what he sees as the social injustice they inflicted on him and his mother, does not justify his treatment of others which is actually no better. He is the archetypal snob, and finds his perfect foil in Sibella who, though initially finding the lowly status of Louis when they first meet as children inferior to her social standing, is quite happy to change her opinion when she sees the chance of becoming a duchess (the inconvenience of both her and Louis being married to other people seems to matter little to her upwardly mobile mindset).
These two aspects aside, it is the underlying vein of rich, 'blue blooded' horror which runs through the film, that makes it so memorable. From the the appearance of chiller stalwarts such as Miles Malleson who, with zesty eccentricity, plays the hangman who takes a morbid delight in his job (he had appeared as the coachman in Ealing's classic 1945 frightener Dead of Night, and would later show up in several Hammer productions during the 1960's), and Price himself (his later horror appearances were numerous including 1973's Horror Hospital and Theatre of Blood), to the aforementioned coldness of Louis and the inventive methods he uses to despatch the hapless members of the D'Ascoyne clan (everything from an exploding jar of caviar, to the shooting of his final victim who has been caught in one of his own man traps whilst out hunting).
Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps more than any other of Ealing's prodigious output, perfectly encapsulates every aspect which made their productions so memorable, from razor sharp wit to faultless performances. Let's just hope that Hollywood and a certain Mr Hanks don't see fit to try and update it. The D'Ascoynes would be turning in the family vault.
The film is currently on release in selected cinemas. It will be released on digitally restored DVD and Blu-ray, including a BBC Radio 3 'British Cinema of the 1940s' audio featurette, an introduction by director John Landis, the restored trailer and a behind-the-scenes stills gallery, from the 5th September.