The Chameleonic Charms of Sir Alec

He is the most disarming and self-effacing of the English actors who dominated stage and screen in the middle of the twentieth century—the others were John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Laurence Olivier. Those fellows carried themselves like grand actors; they had brave, proud voices that signaled poetry or drama. Alec, by contrast, was slight, soft-spoken, losing his hair and bashful to the point of retreating into the background. He was most plausible as a suburban bank manager or a minor naval officer. Indeed, on one occasion when asked to name the best performance he had ever given, he said: “That of a very inefficient, undistinguished, junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. It proved to be the longest-running show I have ever been in.”

You get his sense of humor there—dry, deferential, without vanity. But with a benevolent, distant smile if you watched him closely. You felt he appreciated absurdity. When he made The Swan (1956), with Grace Kelly (her last film, before Monaco), they had a scene on a balcony in a breeze, looking out over a lake. The wind blew hard and Grace got dust in her eye. She had to be made-up again with all the fuss that involved. Alec waited patiently—as he told the story. Grace returned, lovely again. They did the scene once more but now Alec’s hair piece blew off in the wind. Grace collapsed in laughter—not unkind; there was a bond of amusement between them, then and always. I’ll come back to that.

But how many actors—how many men?—would laugh if their toupee took flight? For Guinness the mishap seemed natural and a useful, gentle warning to anyone who reckoned he was in danger of being a star.

And yet. Alec Guinness could go wild in his calm, gentlemanly way, especially when disguised. He was Fagin in Oliver Twist, a characterization derived from the George Cruikshank drawings in the Dickens novel, plainly evil but ingratiating, on the edge of the perverse, and as many people have observed, close to anti-Semitic. There were other outrageous Alecs. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, he played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, male and female, caricatures, the opposite of ordinary. And it was Alec who, when sent the script for that great satire, with the studio nervous about taste and propriety, asked why only four D’Ascoynes were being murdered. He grasped the audacious joke. “Oh no,” he murmured, “let’s make it eight.”

So he was modest, demure even, and not exactly noticeable in person, with that hushed, respectful voice. But there was a kind of demon inside him. That energy would carry him as the reprobate genius painter, Gulley Jimson, in The Horse’s Mouth. In time it would provide the iron will in the slim frame that drove his Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. That epic picture is not perfect: the William Holden character is superfluous, an opportunity to cast an American star to bolster the box office. But Nicholson is astonishing in his physical collapse and moral rigidity. He could be a bank manager promoted because of the war. He is a duty-bound obsessive ready to die for his code but unaware how easily that unthinking allegiance may assist the Japanese war effort. Nicholson is offered as a hero, but it’s the core of the film that he is also a misguided fool. And Guinness does nothing to romanticize this unyielding and dangerous man.

Beyond that, as a movie actor from a romantic age, Alec was studiously cool in love scenes or sexual relationships on-screen. The smothered desire in the man was evident in his George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where he is mortified because his wife is betraying him. But perhaps his addiction to work has provoked her. So Smiley takes cover in the company of men in the spying trade—of course, that only leads to more betrayals. Did this detachment in Guinness prompt stories that he might have a gay life, as well as a long, happy marriage? We don’t know; we don’t need to care; but we wonder. And, as I said, there was this long rapport with Grace Kelly. Be patient; I’ll come to that.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Alec Guinness was born in London in 1914 and he was a bastard. His well-born mother had a fling with an older man and that father was never named. Alec believed it was an irascible Scottish banker (I did warn you about bank managers) and it’s up to us to consider how far this circumstance may have affected his deepest feelings about himself. A lot of actors work out of personal dismay or insufficiency, and Guinness was on the stage in London by his midtwenties, often playing supporting roles to Gielgud or Olivier who were a few years older. He looked like a backup, though in 1938 he did do the lead in a famous modern-dress Hamlet. In stills from it (nothing else survives) he looks like a harrowed prince in a fascist age.

People in the business realized how good he was, but Gielgud and Redgrave had worked for Hitchcock, and Olivier was Heathcliffe in Hollywood before Guinness shot a foot of film. He didn’t seem confident enough for the camera, but he was unusually enterprising. In the winter of 1939–40, waiting for the war to turn real, he set up a stage adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations—he rewrote it himself as a play—and took the role of Herbert Pocket: the chipper, loyal friend to Pip and the model supporting part. That production was seen by David Lean, and after the war the young director thought to make a movie of it and remembered Guinness as Pocket. It was his start, in 1946.

That was the picture that introduced Guinness to the Ealing Studio, about to launch on its remarkable postwar years. Britain was in a state of physical ruin that did not match the country having won the war. There was bomb damage, rationing of food and clothes, no funds for anything—so the bomb sites remained for years. Yet it was a shining hour for British film, with Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and Robert Hamer, among others. Alec didn’t work with all of them, but he became someone the British audience knew even if they did not always recognize him. Guinness did like to hide—another reason for eight D’Ascoynes. 

One Dickens led to another for Guinness, and David Lean was the eager identifier of this rather guarded talent. Oliver Twist followed in 1948. I am prejudiced because I was about Oliver’s age when the film came out. But I cannot forget Fagin’s den of thieves, with Robert Newton as Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh (Lean’s wife then) as Nancy, and Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. That ensemble defined how Dickens could be put on film—and it made a terrifying place for John Howard Davies’s pale Oliver. It’s a great film, in my memory. And where else do films live? There was an uncanny air about this Fagin: he might care for a lost boy, but the boy would be ruined in the process.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) came next, and Guinness always knew the heart of that film was Dennis Price’s sly, suave performance as the lead, Louis Mazzini, a murderer with hints of Oscar Wilde. Alec and Dennis were friends from the war years and Guinness was content to do eight very funny sideshows. But they are funny not because he is a comedian, but because he stays in character.

Still, Guinness did not make a lot of films. He was always busy on stage (he premiered Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in 1949), and fond of his country life—he and his wife, Merula, lived in Hampshire. But in 1951, he starred in two very popular Ealing comedies: The Lavender Hill Mob, in which he and Stanley Holloway were a pair of polite crooks; and Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit, where he played a brilliant textile inventor whose perfect fabric might destroy the clothing trade. He looked like himself in both films (with benefit of the toupee) and seemed content with that. He did not assert himself on-screen, or off-screen in trying to set up his own projects.

The Lavender Hill Mob (it was a place in then unfashionable Battersea) was the key picture, for it made Alec endearing. He played a bank clerk (of course), excessively dutiful, but nursing a naughty plan behind his spectacles. He wants to steal the bank’s gold bullion. But how would he dispose of it? Then he meets Holloway, who has a foundry where the gold can be turned into Eiffel Tower paperweights. It’s a funny, cozy film, directed by Charles Crichton, and Guinness is in his element as a fusspot with a big dream. He got an Oscar nomination as best actor—the statuette went to Gary Cooper in High Noon.

The Lavender Hill Mob

His last Ealing comedy, in 1955, was a lot nastier. The Ladykillers (also directed by Mackendrick, and written by William Rose), cast Guinness as a criminal mastermind in the Kings Cross area. His gang, including the young Peter Sellers, find themselves needing to kill a sweet old lady who might turn them in. Guinness made himself ravaged and malicious—he was truly scary and this innovative black comedy proved a big commercial hit. (Mackendrick was two years away from doing Sweet Smell of Success.)

Edging into his forties, Guinness was not easy to cast. He had done The Captain’s Paradise (1953) and The Card (1952), both of which put him in romantic situations, the former as a skipper with two wives (Yvonne De Carlo and Celia Johnson), the latter with the twenty-year-old Petula Clark. But he seemed more comfortable and better tested dressing up as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli opposite Irene Dunne’s Queen Victoria in The Mudlark (1950). 

There was another departure in The Prisoner (1955), one of the projects Guinness was most eager to make. That had also been true of Great Expectations and a stage production of The Brothers Karamazov, which he personally adapted from the novel. The Prisoner was about an East European cardinal who is being interrogated and broken down by Communist authorities (Jack Hawkins was the inquisitor). It came from a play by Bridget Boland and it was a sign of Guinness’s developing Catholic faith and his understanding of evil. The film is austere, frightening, and uncompromising, and it shows a steely Alec hidden away beneath Ealing fun. 

He was moving away from mere Englishness. That’s what made Kwai (1957) a turning point: an ideal role in a very successful picture and the crucial step in David Lean going “international.” In fact, Lean and Guinness fought on the production. The actor had wanted more humor and it was Lean who insisted on Nicholson being so limited a man. I think Lean was right this time, and Guinness with his Oscar suddenly attained a level of fame beyond his understanding. That curious predicament would be topped off twenty years later when Sir Alec was enlisted as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (and receiving 2.25 per cent of George Lucas’s revenue—gold bullion, or around $50 million). There could be a funny movie about Guinness’s perplexity over that 1977 blockbuster and the way it altered his life.

It was probably the success of Kwai that allowed Guinness to do his boldest film: The Horse’s Mouth (1958), adapted from a novel by Joyce Cary and directed by Ronald Neame. But it was Guinness who wrote the screenplay (it was nominated for an Oscar), which is largely faithful to the novel and has a deep but unsentimental compassion for the visionary self-destructive Gulley Jimson, a painter who sees any wall as the opportunity for a mural and rides roughshod over everyone he meets. Jimson is uncontrolled by society or politeness. He is a persistent outlaw who would do anything for his art. In so many ways, the film was generated by its actor and it reveals a lust for raw, rebellious creativity that Alec and the British seldom admitted to.

The Horse’s Mouth

I can’t help feeling Guinness lost his way with big success, however. There were not too many necessary films ahead—though Tunes of Glory (1960) is one of them, where he plays a violent-tempered and disgraced Scottish officer. On the other hand he had several rather inane paydays: Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); Hitler, in one of the least distinguished versions of that story; a Pope; and a Charles I. Maintaining his link to Dickens, he would be Mr. Todd in the film of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1988), waiting to have Dickens read to him, and he won prizes in Little Dorrit (1987) for television. But don’t forget his later, loyal assistance to David Lean.

Thus, he played Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the Communist brother in Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the Hindu Professor Godbole in A Passage to India (1984). Those two non-white parts now look like misguided casting choices, indicative of how old-fashioned and racist movie imperialism could be. Guinness did his best with them: he is smooth and airy as the pro-Arab Feisal, but he was uneasy as Godbole and the entire film is a measure of how a great director could lose touch.

Such a career might have trailed away—and Guinness no longer worked as hard in theater. But providence was at hand: when the BBC elected to adapt John le Carré’s George Smiley for a seven-part series in 1979, Guinness was judged exactly right for what amounted to a bank officer who realizes the entire economy has been betrayed. In a way he did very little as Smiley. The underplaying was constitutional now; the talk was sorrowful; Smiley was wintry and unsmiling, but uncomplaining. He was the face of disappointed intelligence and barely recollected honor watching the lights go out. It was the performance he will be known for. And you can see it, if you like, as the portrait of a man who has never known or trusted his father.

But let’s not be gloomy. There was an imp of mischief behind his composed face. I am not saying there was ever anything the principality of Monaco could have regretted between Alec Guinness and Grace Kelly. But there was this.

As they made The Swan together, on location in North Carolina, some Native American admirers visited the set. They gave a ceremonial tomahawk to Guinness. He was about to finish his stint on the picture; he was going home, and he couldn’t pack the tomahawk. So on impulse he begged a porter to slip the blade into Grace’s hotel bed. She never mentioned discovering this to Guinness. But a few years later, acting in London, Alec went back to his hotel room after a performance and the gleaming tomahawk lay in his bed.

A few more years passed without a word, and then Alec heard that Grace was doing a poetry-reading tour in the U.S. So he asked a friend, an actor who was supporting her on the tour, if he would take the tomahawk with him and put it where it belonged. This was duly accomplished, in Michigan.

Not a word was exchanged, but then several more years later Alec was called to Los Angeles to receive an honorary Oscar. He was to stay at the excellent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for this event. And there in his immense bed he found the shining, ageless, waiting weapon.

Still the two of them did not speak about the secret ways in which a tomahawk had such an adventurous life. The silent interplay might have gone on forever, but Grace died—you remember that sadness and you know no tomahawk was involved. I love the story as much as I do Oliver Twist. As one of the best flirtations in cinema history, it deserves its own movie. I can just about imagine actresses who could play Grace. But Alec? Without Alec? I don’t think anyone could manage the charm, the serene shyness, and the immaculate, mysterious design. Some actors count on limelight, but Guinness walked in air.


A selection of Guinness’s films are available to stream on the Criterion Channel through November 30, 2019.