Robert Hamer (director)
106 min (length)
24 June 2019 (released)
27 June 2019
This 1949 film is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown when it comes to Ealing Comedies and it says something indeed as the other Ealing gemstones all shine very brightly. It is director Robert Hamer's best film and easily that of its star: Dennis Price.
This brilliant (and be sure it is) pitch-black comedy is adapted from a little known Edwardian novel entitled ‘Israel Rank’, written in 1907 by Roy Horniman. The story goes that it was originally screenwriter Michael Pertwee's idea for a film version. However Hamer did not warm to him and took over the project, adapting the book with John Dighton. In the original novel the protagonist half Jewish and one of his victims is a child. Enough said... in the film version (made just four years after the war) our anti-hero is half-Italian and no children are killed.
Our protagonist Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), now the 10th Duke of Chalfont, is languishing in Pentonville Prison awaiting his execution the very next morning for a murder he did NOT commit. His calm poise and demeanour beggars belief (here the ultra suave Price is in his element). A comic touch is thrown in with veteran stager Miles Malleson's hangman who is going to retire after this hanging using the silken rope never to return to hemp. Louis is writing his memoirs and we will go back in time to discover that he is a charming and remorseless serial killer… albeit with a very strong motive. His dear Mama, herself the aristocratic daughter of a stinking rich Duke, was disowned after marrying a common Italian opera singer 'who succumbed to a heart attack upon first laying eyes on the baby Louis'. And his beloved mother is forced to exchange the medieval splendours of Chalfont Castle for number 73 Balaclava Terrace S.W. London.
The film is positively littered with witticisms and pointed barbs, all delivered with glorious elan by Price! Quite simply Louis decides to polish off all the surviving members of his mother's family after she dies in a poor-house ignored by her family and he is forced to take a menial 'job' in a drapery store while his love interest Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries someone else. In order to woe her back and considerably better his own position, namely to be successor to the Dukedom he has a right to, Louis must polish off members of the Ascoyne D’Ascoyne family clan (all eight of them played by Alec Guinness!). And what a pleasure it is for us to witness the ways and means he goes about achieving his objective. If only Louis had been a little more calculating where romance was concerned.
Some critic at the time was of the opinion that this was Guinness's film though this reviewer disagrees: no known actor at that time could have bettered Dennis Price in this role and few could look down there noses like Dennis could with such disdain! He was one of the few actors who knew that 'For it' is two separate words. Greenwood playing Louis childhood sweetheart also provides a conniving and worthy foil. Her petite chicanery is counterbalanced by Edith’s (Valerie Hobson) austere loftiness - but it is Greenwood we remember. Guinness is an endless joy but never in a million years could he have got near Price's crowning achievement. Even the sustained high note in Louis father's (also played by him) awful rendition of Mozart's 'Il Mio Tesoro Infanto' is amusing. As usual we have the a stunning array of Extras among the bonus material, including the alternative ending that leaves no doubt about Louis's future and those days you couldn't get away with murder. Even the title radiates with it s paraphrasing from Tennyson's poem ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman Blood”. Just in case the title made no sense to you. A sheer undiluted, darkly elegant and timeless masterpiece! Tragically for Price, it was all downhill after this gem.