Sunday, 18 September 2011
Terence Davies on Kind Hearts and Coronets
This is one of the finest comedies ever – and it's all thanks to the man who plays its well-bred villain
Tuesday 13 September 2011
There are four great voiceovers in cinema: William Holden in Sunset Boulevard; Joanne Woodward in The Age of Innocence; Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman; and, to my mind the greatest of them all, Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets. It's utterly perfect; there isn't a flaw in it. The way Price delivers it is quite extraordinary. The truth is, without Dennis Price there wouldn't be a film. He holds it all together with the most elegant diction. It's quite wonderful, even just to listen to.
The starting point of Kind Hearts and Coronets is a 1907 novel called Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman. It was originally a somewhat laboured Edwardian satire on antisemitism; I tried to read it, and frankly it's impossible to get through. Robert Hamer, the director and co-writer with John Dighton, took the basic idea but quite rightly changed everything else. What they've done is transform it into one of the greatest comedies of British and indeed world cinema. I think it says something that, though it was released in 1949, this is the only black-and-white film I always remember in colour.
Price has a wonderful role: Louis Mazzini, the son of a disinherited ducal daughter who, after he is not allowed to bury his mother's body in the family seat, decides to exact revenge by killing everyone who stands between him and the title. Thus the film becomes an odyssey in well-bred murder. We empathise with Louis because natural justice has been denied him, so his murderous quest has our wholehearted support, for he is not only a victim, he is a charming one with an exquisite sense of irony. We also share his disgust at the well-heeled classes whose privileges have never been earned and who believe their right to rule is automatic and God-given.
And Price is absolutely brilliant. If you study his gestures in the film, you soon realise how beautiful they are. They even transmit themselves to the actor playing the prison governor: in the opening scene, when they are speaking together in Louis's cell, Price grips the edge of his desk, and the governor daintily touches the desk with a single finger. It's gorgeous. You can't direct that, it just happens.
Later on, Louis has some lovely scenes with his mother where he makes his voice very, very light, like a young man. You believe it. It's a lovely placement of the voice. Interestingly, what prompts the murders is his love for her, the fact she has been so hurt and so dismissed. It's such a wonderfully controlled hatred.
Similarly, there's a tremendous economy about the direction. I love the scene with Louis's father singing to his mother the first time they meet. Price (who plays the father, too) is wearing the most preposterous moustache and never appears to breathe. The whole story is told in a single shot. Look at the way his mother drops her eyes when he looks at his father. You know immediately she's in love with him. That's cinema.
The film's sense of comedy arises from the subversion of the hierarchy, which is restrictive and comforting at the same time. So Louis replaces it with an exquisite war of personal attrition that is never random but aimed entirely at what he calls "the D'Ascoyne's monstrous pride". It is Louis's poise that is wonderful. It is seen as exceptionally important to be on polite terms with the people you intend to kill. It is both vulgar and unthinkable that revenge should ever interfere with good manners. "Revenge is a dish best tasted cold," says Louis.
And Louis is as good as his word. For when guarding one's personal honour one has to be meticulous while observing the social fabric with equal scrupulousness.
At one time, the whole country shared that belief. Guarding personal and public honour through collective moral shame was axiomatic, accepted but unspoken. But that was a Britain of long, long ago. Look at the ruling class now, and weep.
• Kind Hearts and Coronets is in cinemas now, and rereleased on DVD and BluRay.