Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is an Ealing comedy in name only. True, it’s undeniably a comedy and was made by (though largely not at) Ealing. But in virtually every other respect, it deviates startlingly from the commonly accepted stereotype. Ealing comedies, it’s widely agreed, are cozy, even complacent; Kind Hearts and Coronets is callous and amoral. The humor of Ealing comedy is essentially good-natured and folksy; Kind Hearts and Coronets is cool, ironic, and witty. Sex in Ealing comedies is mostly avoided or, if inevitable, treated with embarrassed jocularity; several scenes in Kind Hearts and Coronets carry a potent erotic charge. In Ealing comedies, the criminals—even the lovable ones, like Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)—eventually pay for their crimes; the hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets is a calculating serial killer who, in the final reel, stands a good chance of getting away scot-free.
None of which is so surprising, given that Kind Hearts and Coronets was created by the maverick Robert Hamer, of all Ealing directors the one who found it hardest to conform to the studio’s upbeat, wholesome ethos. And unlike Alexander Mackendrick, Ealing’s other great maverick director, Hamer never had the patience—or the cunning—to slip his subversive notions into his work under the guise of innocuous comedy. Hamer openly fought for his ideas and, in the cautious atmosphere of post–World War II British cinema, usually lost.
The prevailing mode of filmmaking at Ealing—still, half a century after its demise, the most famous of all British film studios—was largely the creation of production head Michael Balcon, who ran it as a benevolent autocracy. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Balcon was fervently patriotic, left-liberal in politics, and prudish in sexual matters. When, in 1955, Ealing was sold to the BBC, Balcon had a plaque placed on the studio wall that read: “Here, during a quarter of a century, many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.” What he most likely had in mind was Ealing’s bent for realism, much influenced by the number of senior Ealing personnel—Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, Charles Crichton, indeed Hamer himself—who had joined the studio from the British documentary movement. But more than that, the kind of film that Balcon always preferred, and that he held to be typically British, was essentially conciliatory, with a plot that moved toward final-reel consensus, for the good of the community—an outcome reflected in such mainstream Ealing movies as the drama The Blue Lamp (1949) and the comedy Passport to Pimlico (1949).
By contrast, Hamer’s instincts drew him toward dramatic confrontation, the irreconcilable clash of motives and emotions. Kind Hearts and Coronets, his most accomplished film, not only traces the working out of a ruthless program of personal vengeance but mounts a sustained attack on conventional morality and the institution of the family, both of which he had cause to detest.
Hamer was born in 1911, into a prosperous, respectable Welsh landowning family. He attended boarding school in Lancashire, England, and his final school report, written by his house captain, in 1930, seems remarkably perceptive: “His apparent cynicism did not mar an attractive and interesting character whose fault was a too quick temper, and whose merit an ability to recover good humor very quickly.” The tensions and contradictions implicit in that thumbnail sketch would fuel both Hamer’s early success and his tragically premature burnout.
At Cambridge, where he studied math, he seemed set for a brilliant degree; but to the horror of his family, he was sent down for having an affair with a man. Trying to go straight, he married the actress Joan Holt (sister of another Ealing director, Seth Holt). Joan, strikingly beautiful but low on talent, matched her husband for alcohol consumption and outdid him at drunken invective. It was alcoholism, as much as creative frustration, that would eventually put paid to his career—and his life.
But before that sad decline, Hamer achieved rapid success at Ealing. He joined the studio in 1940, as an editor, and soon graduated to screenwriting and some unbilled directorial work. (At Ealing, a co-operative studio par excellence, people rarely insisted on credits when helping out on each other’s movies.) His first directorial credit came on a segment of the multiepisode ghost movie Dead of Night (1945), “The Haunted Mirror,” in which a pleasant, bland young man is drawn into a dangerous past of violence and sexuality.
This preoccupation with the shadow side persisted in Hamer’s first two films as sole director: the Victorian melodrama Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a fair shot at transplanting Jacques Prévert–Marcel Carné poetic realism into the context of East End London. In both, respectable family values come under threat from antisocial forces: in Pink String and Sealing Wax, it’s the glitzy, dangerous demimonde that frequents a Brighton pub; and in It Always Rains on Sunday, a young wife’s convict ex-lover, who’s far sexier than her staid, elderly husband. In the end, the lowlifes are defeated, but with them all vitality drains out of the films, leaving just the family structure, smug and suffocating. With his next project, Hamer took his revenge on family values, making a film that, as he explained, “paid no regard whatever to established, although not practiced, moral convention, in which a whole family is picked off by a mass murderer.”
If Kind Hearts and Coronets never feels “typically Ealing,” this may be partly because very little of the film was shot there. Ealing was (and still is) a tiny studio that could house no more than three productions at a time, and as it happened, five films were scheduled for the summer of 1948. Mackendrick’s unit was sent off to the Hebrides, in Scotland, to make Whisky Galore!, while most of the opulent interiors for Hamer’s film were shot at the much larger Rank studios, at Pinewood. Which meant that Hamer, in addition to having the services of Ealing’s most talented director of photography, Douglas Slocombe, had access to Rank’s state-of-the-art lighting department, lending the photography a polished, elegant quality that few other Ealing movies can match.
But what most clearly distinguishes Kind Hearts and Coronets from its Ealing stablemates—and what most alarmed Michael Balcon about it—is its language and tone, for which the film’s original source material deserves at least some of the credit. Hamer had found an Edwardian novel, Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman—originally published in 1907 and reprinted in 1946, long after Horniman’s death—and was at once struck by its cinematic potential.
It’s sometimes suggested that Israel Rank is a feeble book, and anti-Semitic. Neither is true. Horniman’s novel is light, witty, and entertaining, written in an aphoristic sub-Wildean style. (In his introduction to the 1946 edition, Hugh Kingsmill hints that Horniman was gay.) Above all—and this is undoubtedly what appealed to Hamer—it expresses an amused disdain for conventional morality. Here’s Israel Rank, the first-person narrator, musing on the ethics of killing: “There is an old saying, ‘Murder will out.’ I am really unable to see why this should be so. I am convinced that many a delightful member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to remove a human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.”
As for anti-Semitism: Horniman’s hero is half-Jewish, his Jewish father having married a daughter of the aristocratic Gascoyne clan. Horniman, himself of mixed ethnicity—according to Kingsmill, his father was paymaster in chief of the Royal Navy and his mother “a member of the Greek aristocracy”—uses his hero’s ancestry to poke quiet fun at the casual bigotry of Edwardian England. “A Semitic appearance, however superior, is not the best recommendation to society,” he notes. Four years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, however, a comedy about a Jewish serial killer would scarcely have been acceptable—least of all at Balcon’s studio. Israel’s surname had to go, too: Ealing’s films, after all, were distributed by the Rank Organization, chairman, J. Arthur Rank. So Israel Rank became the half-Italian Louis Mazzini.
Kind Hearts and Coronets retains the essential plot of Israel Rank and most of its characters. But for once a filmed adaptation improves enormously on the original. For a start, the plotting is far more varied and inventive: Israel dispatches most of his victims with poison—not the most ingenious, or cinematic, of methods—where Louis uses explosive caviar, arrow, weir, shotgun, and so forth. Israel is arrested for the bungled murder of his final victim, Earl Gascoyne, whereas Hamer and his coscreenwriter, John Dighton, introduce the delicious irony of having Louis convicted for the one murder he didn’t commit. And Israel is rescued from the gallows by a pallid character called Esther Lane: one of his mistresses (along with Sibella), she kills herself for love of him, leaving a signed confession to the murder. In the film, Sibella’s machinations are far less melodramatically conventional, and much more entertaining.
One of Hamer’s stated intentions in making Kind Hearts and Coronets was “that of using this English language, which I love, in a more varied and more interesting way.” Between them, Hamer and Dighton brought added point and sparkle to the dialogue, and especially to the key element of Louis’s voice-over, which comments on the action with cool detachment. As the punt containing the first of his victims, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, and the young woman he invited to an illicit weekend at Maidenhead tips over the weir, we hear Louis observe: “I was sorry about the girl—but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably, during the weekend, already undergone a fate worse than death.” The comment gains extra bite not only from its poised callousness but from its ironic nod to conventional hypocrisy.
Hamer was never the most visually acute of filmmakers—he lacked the artistic and technical flair of Mackendrick, for example—but he was noted as a sympathetic and inspirational director of actors. Alec Guinness, who became a personal friend and went on to appear in three more Hamer films, particularly enjoyed working with him. “We spoke the same language and laughed at the same things,” he recalled in his autobiography. “He was finely tuned, full of wicked glee, and marvelous to actors—appreciative and encouraging.” Guinness’s eightfold performance as the entire D’Ascoyne clan made his reputation as a comic actor of unsurpassed versatility.
But Guinness’s tour de force is matched by the rest of the cast. In the performance of his career, Dennis Price creates a Byronic Louis Mazzini, who anchors the whole story with his unruffled suavity and stylish narration. Joan Greenwood, one of British cinema’s finest comediennes, is toe-curlingly delicious as Louis’s purring, manipulative mistress Sibella. And Valerie Hobson, despite being saddled with the thankless role of “the good woman”—and a priggish one to boot—evinces, under Hamer’s direction, an appealing warmth often lacking in her other screen appearances.
After the success of Kind Hearts and Coronets, Balcon hailed it as “an entirely new kind of comedy” and “the best film we have made.” But when first presented with the story, he had been horrified—“I’m not going to make a comedy about eight murders!”—and only capitulated to a united front of all Ealing’s top creative personnel. He was even more alarmed when he saw the finished film—not so much by the violence, which is oblique and stylized, but by the powerful erotic charge of the scenes involving Greenwood’s delectably sensual Sibella. He demanded that they be toned down; Hamer indignantly refused, and the disagreement flared into a public row. Finally, Balcon reluctantly gave way, but Hamer’s career at Ealing never fully recovered.
In later years, Hamer came somewhat to resent the film. “It’s flattering to make a picture which becomes a classic within ten years,” he observed. “It’s not so flattering, however, when people get the impression it’s the only picture you’ve ever made.” But perhaps, in a way, it is. Few of Hamer’s other films are without interest, and in several of them—The Spider and the Fly (1949), Father Brown (1954), The Scapegoat (1959)—can be traced the doppelgänger motif that mirrors his own tormented, self-lacerating nature. But all of them suffer from unevenness and are intermittently afflicted with the insolent offhandedness that Hamer reserved for passages he despised or found boring. Only Kind Hearts and Coronets, one senses, engaged his attention and enthusiasm from start to finish. Hamer’s sharp intelligence, his delight in language, his cynicism, and his “wicked glee” gleam through every frame, making it, with its ironic poise and Wildean wit, surely the finest black comedy British cinema has ever produced.
Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian, and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Total Film, and The International Film Guide. He teaches film journalism at the University of Leicester.