This is an image from 1:00:00 into Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a deliciously black, happily morbid comedy from England’s Ealing Studios. Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, who schemes to kill off all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family standing between him and his rightful inheritance. Alec Guinness plays every one of the D’Ascoynes, flawlessly imitating eight different varieties of blue-blooded pomposity – from the long-winded clergyman down to the august banker who unwittingly employs his would-be murderer. In the middle of the film, as Mazzini’s systematically hacking apart the D’Ascoyne family tree, we’re treated to a series of homicidal vignettes as three aristocrats in a row shuffle off this mortal coil… and that’s where this image comes in.
The Guinness guise pictured above is that of General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, whom Mazzini sends an explosive pot of caviar, considering it a fittingly bombastic finale for a lifelong soldier. The General embodies the spirit of Victorian imperialism, as he gloats tediously about his part in the Boer War: “I pretended to be deceived by the feint and sent our horse to meet it. At that moment, the concealed enemy emerged from behind the kopje…” etc., etc., all in the same raspy monotone. Even his last words are filled with unthinking ethnocentrism, as he refers to caviar as the “one thing the Russkies do really well.” He’s boring and self-absorbed, and as with most of the D’Ascoynes, his death evokes a chuckle instead of a tear – especially since he goes up in an absurd puff of smoke right out of Roadrunner and Coyote.
This whole scene is surrounded by Price’s impeccably dry voiceover narration, as he details his methods and underscores the little ironies of his refined killing spree. The contrast between the witty, industrious Mazzini and the stuffy old warhorse he’s hunting makes his crime seem all the more justified; after all, he’s only leveling the playing field. His murders are like a controlled burn in a forest, getting rid of the decrepit trees that have outstayed their welcome so that new life can grow in its place. While Mazzini rapidly advances through the social hierarchy, the General stays rooted in his chair, shifting only to dig into the caviar. He’s the proverbial sitting duck, an easy target for both Mazzini and the film itself.
Both the General and the club around him look so stately and sessile, so grounded in revered British traditions, that they ought to be mounted in a museum. Mazzini says nothing about the General’s surroundings, but he doesn’t need to, as the film’s set design says it all. The ritzy decor, obsequious waiters, and clusters of well-dressed old men are all hallmarks of the gentlemen’s clubs popular in Victorian England – establishments with class- and usually gender-restricted clientele. If it’s not obvious already, Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t just about the killing off a single family, but about the slow death of an entire social system – a change which began around the turn of the 20th century, when the film is set, and is continuing even today.
This frame contains a caricature of social class and a historical moment, rendered comical through Guinness’s narcissistic monologue and silly-looking bald cap. Just like the General, Kind Hearts and Coronets is part of a long British tradition, one that runs from Punch to Monty Python and beyond: that of scathing satire. For beneath its veneer of sly dark comedy, it’s really a movie about violent sociopolitical revolution, and Louis Mazzini is really a lovable, self-motivated terrorist. It’s a funnier, transatlantic version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. And it couldn’t have happened without the understated genius of Alec Guinness.