In addition to being his funniest film, The Horse’s Mouth is the most personal, and touching, of all Alec Guinness’ movies. Apart from starring as the brilliant but bedraggled artist Gulley Jimson, Guinness also adapted the Oscar-nominated screenplay from Joyce Cary’s book, and initiated the entire project, recruiting producer John Bryan and director Ronald Neame.
That Guinness would ever make something so personal, substantial, or delightful out of The Horse’s Mouth did not at first seem likely. His earliest contact with it took place during World War II, while aboard a Royal Navy ship stranded with mechanical trouble in the Bay of Naples. The actor relieved his boredom by absorbing himself in literature—including the newly published The Horse’s Mouth. He was, however, put off by Cary’s stream-of-consciousness narrative and discarded the novel after the first dozen pages, picking it up later when his wife suggested the book as a basis for a screenplay. His screenplay was, by his own admission, only an approximation of Cary’s original novel—a nearly plotless portrait of the artist as a madman, at least from the point of view of most of those around him.
The movie advances with an untroubled abandon, leaving little chance for the viewer to ponder the plot. The Horse’s Mouth is essentially a visual comedy, and at its center is a painter: Gulley Jimson (loosely patterned by Cary after his friend Dylan Thomas), an outcast obsessed with his need to paint, and with scarcely a social grace to his name. Guinness’ performance is visceral, his dialogue mumbled in a harsh, difficult-to-interpret rasp. The latter was deliberately chosen by the actor to avoid giving Jimson any identifiable accent or class, and to emphasize his separateness from those around him: Others deal with life via words and discussion; he deals with life via art.
The film is triumphant in its presentation of the bright and dark sides of Jimson’s creative obsession. He is brilliant, but his brilliance manifests itself in ways that irritate even his admirers: The Beeders’ interest in his art results in his destroying their home as he leaves The Raising of Lazarus on their wall; Hickson, the patron who leaves Jimson’s paintings to the British Museum, nevertheless is driven to obtain a police order of protection from Jimson; and after finally completing The Last Judgement with the help of his eager young devotees, Jimson himself destroys it before, he believes, anyone else will. His feelings about his own admirers are rightly ambivalent, since they respect him for early works that he no longer takes seriously, while rejecting his newest work, which has a special focus on feet.
The movie is as much about the different ways that art and its disorderly creation touch the people around the artist as it is about the artist caught up in that impulse. Gulley Jimson may be the central character in The Horse’s Mouth, but the film is just as much about those he touches: from Coker (Kay Walsh), whom he damages “collaterally” in the course of his work, but who nevertheless is drawn to him and continues to care about him; to Hickson (Ernest Thesiger) and Lord and Lady Beeder (Robert Coote, Veronica Turleigh), who don’t quite grasp what they’ve gotten themselves into (though each in their own way inspire a great gift to the rest of the world); to Nosy (Mike Morgan), the guileless admirer and would-be emulator. He gets the last word, in the film’s finale, its only major compromise with the book. Where Cary’s Jimson is hauled off to an uncertain future of jail or institutionalization, Guinness’ Jimson casts off his boat in search of bigger canvases to paint, greedily eyeing the vast expanses of the hulls of nearby ships. This is the movie’s most poignant moment, as Jimson sails away, with Nosy calling after him, “Michelangelo, Rubens, and Blake—you’re one of them!”
Part of the success of The Horse’s Mouth lay in the impact of its wonderfully witty, madly paced music. Although Prokofieff’s music was actually written for an entirely different movie (Alexander Feinzimmer’s Lieutenant Kije, about the mad Czar Paul I), the score is recycled here as a perfect accompaniment to Jimson’s obsessive need to paint and the ensuing chaos. Indeed, The Horse’s Mouth is a paean to obsession and the greatness that it can yield. That it works so well, with hardly a wasted shot or word in its depiction of a chaotic life, is a tribute to both director Ronald Neame and Alec Guinness.
Bruce Eder, who has written for All Music Guide and Current Biography, has also produced and narrated commentaries for numerous Criterion Collection releases.