If one were to be murdered, one might not begrudge the act quite so much if the murderer was Louis Mazzini. Drowning in a weir, for example, wouldn’t seem so bad if the man dispatching you was as witty, intelligent, handsome, suave, not to mention aristocratic as Louis. Kind Hearts and Coronets is the classic British movie that tells the tale of Mr Mazzini and his ingenious rise to wealth and title.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is not only a ‘classic’ movie, it is also very enjoyable. From the title card to the credits, it is nitrous oxide funny but also clever. It is the well-mannered comedy Martin Scorsese claims gave him the idea for the Ray Liotta’s weary voiceover in Goodfellas. The film is also the only comedy in the top ten of the BFI 100 (the British Film Institutes’s hundred best films of the 20th century). It must be one of the funniest films about a serial killer ever made.
Dressed in a silk dressing gown, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) narrates the story from his prison cell (with a lot more wit than Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill). Born the son of an Italian opera singer and the daughter of an English aristocrat, his parents and childhood defines his fate. Although his mother is one of the wealthy and ancient D’Ascoyne family, of the Duchy of Chalfont, she was disinherited for marrying beneath their exulted social standing. So, rather than money and prestige, poor Louis grows up beyond the social pale in Clapham of all places and develops a chip on his shoulder of regal proportions.
It becomes clear that the only thing to do is kill ’em all. The eight D’Ascoynes who stand between him and the ducal seat, that is. Being so far down the family tree might mean lots of work for Louis, but it also adds up to lots of fun for the audience because Alec Guinness plays each of the intervening heirs to the dukedom. Each character is a delight, they range from a Young Henry D’Ascoyne a sensitive photographer with a beautiful wife to ramrod stiff Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, and even Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, the indomitable suffragette.
Alec Guinness is brilliant and it’s easy to see why George Lucas wanted him for Star Wars, but Dennis Price is equally entertaining as Louis, the homicidal draper’s assistant. Kind Hearts and Coronets was written and directed by Richard Hamer and his script sparkles with Wildean epigrammatic wit, mostly delivered by Price. Price has great fun with the lines; who wouldn’t enjoy, “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.”? If Oscar Wilde had written a tale of murder and intrigue, this is what it might have looked like.
To complicate things, Louis’s childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries successful businessman Lionel, but never quite gets over her little half-Italian playmate, Louis on the other hand takes a fancy to a member of the D’Ascoyne family, Edith (Valerie Hobson). So, as well as scheming and murdering, Louis must also juggle the attentions of two striking-looking women. All while he drops elegantly waspish lines with suitably droll relish – referring to Sibella’s dull fiancé, “I must admit he exhibits the most extraordinary capacity for middle age that I’ve ever encountered in a young man of twenty-four.”
It is a shame Dennis Price was dead before any of the young Hollywood directors of the 1970s could find a role for him in their films, as Lucas did for Alec Guinness. Who knows, his name might now be whispered by geeks in the reverent tones reserved for Obi-Wan Kenobi. As it is, we have an almost flawless film built on a series of great performances.
Kind Hearts and Coronets currently has a re-release in cinemas.