Robert Hamer’s deliciously dark and sweetly subversive classic looks fresher, and darker, than ever.
For the generation that had just witnessed the killing of over 60 million people, death was no laughing matter. Yet, from the smouldering rubble of post-war Britain emerged the film that practically invented the black comedy. Given a lavish Blu-ray restoration to celebrate Ealing Studios' 80th anniversary, Robert Hamer’s deliciously dark and sweetly subversive classic looks fresher, and darker, than ever.
A gothic horror disguised as a gentle period farce, Kind Hearts and Coronets tells the story of an aristocratic serial killer and his attempts to murder his way to the family fortune. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a dry witted sociopath separated from the Dukedom of D’Ascoyne by his mother’s poor choice of husband, decides to narrow the genealogical gap between himself and his inheritance.
Starting out by checking the obituaries and gleefully crossing out names on his family tree ("The advent of twin sons to the Duke was a terrible blow. Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo almost immediately"), it isn’t long before he decides to take matters into his own hands.
Narrated from a prison cell on the eve of his execution (in an ironic voiceover style that influenced Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence, among others), the unrepentant Mazzini delights in blithely recounting each coldly calculated step of his dastardly plan. Filmed in short, comic-book style vignettes and played like a straight Edwardian costume drama, the murdering social-climber dispatches each hapless D’Ascoyne with a wry smile that’s obviously shared by Hamer.
In a scene of pure cinema – Louis sits in a quaint country garden sipping tea with the unsuspecting widow of his next victim, pausing for the barest of moments as a faint explosion is heard and smoke starts to rise in the distance from the ‘accident’ he carefully arranged.
Drowning, poisoning, burning, exploding and shooting his way through the entire family, Louis’ hilarious killing spree cuts a swathe through the perceptions of English reserve, moral conviction and the out-dated class system that defined British cinema before Ealing opened their now famous studio doors.
Dennis Price leads the way with a dry humoured amorality that makes Patrick Bateman look like a nervous boy scout, but it’s difficult for anyone to compete with Alec Guinness’ famously virtuoso performance as all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.
Playing everyone from belligerent sea captains to mumbling vicars and wide-eyed enthusiasts to snobbish suffragettes – Guinness’ loony one man circus act nevertheless lends the film an unexpected level of emotional authenticity that adds even more weight to Hamer’s dipping scales of dark social realism and exaggerated comic absurdity. In the world of Ealing – you don’t have to chose between the ridiculous and the sublime.
Beautifully restored, complete with commentaries, documentaries, radio essays, alternate endings and an introduction from director and long-time fan John Landis – the jewel in Ealing’s crown is finally given the treatment it deserves on Blu-ray. Describing the film as "a piece of poison chocolate in a beautifully wrapped box", Landis sums up Optimum’s reissue perfectly.
It might be a classic, but does Ealing still have teeth at 80?
Technically brilliant and savagely funny, serial killing has never looked so much fun.
As sharp, sweet and deliciously amoral as it ever was.