Kind Hearts and Coronets is unique among the classic Ealing comedies of the late 1940's and early 1950's. Rather than dealing with contemporary, post-war themes it has a period setting in the early 20th Century; it deals with the blackest of comedy ideas, not merely serial killing but long-standing adultery, and; it has a very subtle, literate and cynically witty screenplay where jokes are avoided and the humour relies on tone and expression. It was the high-point of director Robert Hamer's career, which was later to become increasingly erratic as he became addicted to alcohol.
It is based on a 1907 novel, 'Israel Rank' by Roy Horniman. The novel is even darker than the film. The protagonist murders a child, and is more ruthlessly and greedily ambitious for wealth and status. He is also half-Jewish, rather than half-Italian. To create a more palatable comedy the ruthlessness was softened, and to avoid anti-Semitic stereotyping (Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, was Jewish) the nationality of his father was changed.
Sitting in a prison cell, due to be hanged the next morning, Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) reflects on the chain of circumstances which brought him there while writing his memoirs. He is the son of a member of the noble D'Ascoyne family who eloped with an Italian tenor and was disowned by them. (The Italian is also played by Price and collapses and dies immediately on seeing his baby son.) Brought up in genteel poverty, Louis is steeped in family history by his mother. It is possible for him to succeed to the family dukedom, as the title can pass through the female line (thanks to “services” provided by the First Duchess to King Charles II).
Forced to work as a shop assistant Louis' resolve for revenge hardens when his mother dies and is refused a place among her ancestors in the family burial vault. He resolves to kill them all until he is duke himself. He realises this will not be easy: “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.” Nevertheless, by means of poison, a bow and arrow, a bomb, and a shotgun, he gradually gains social position and his ultimate goal.
While pursuing the title, Louis becomes involved with two women: the elegant, aristocratic Edith (Valerie Hobson), widow of one of his victims, and; Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a childhood friend who preferred marriage to someone rich to a shop assistant but realises her mistake as Louis rises in life. It is strongly implied Louis takes Sibella's virginity the night before her wedding. At the reception he compliments her husband: “You're a lucky man, Lionel. Take my word for it.” He also reflects “that even Sibella's capacity for lying was going to be taxed to the utmost” to explain that.
The story reaches its climax when, having murdered most of his living relatives, Louis is arrested for the murder of Sibella's husband. No suicide note is found and Sibella's performance as a grieving widow leads to a 'guilty' verdict. In a prison visit Sibella indicates a note might be found, if Edith were to be got rid of so she could become Duchess. Louis agrees the strain of the trial could take years off Edith's life and, at the last moment, the note is found and Louis is reprieved. As he leaves the prison a reporter asks permission to publish his memoirs: “My memoirs? My memoirs... My memoirs!” He has left the full written confession on the desk in his cell. (The UK release ended here. To make sure US audiences got the point that crime did not pay, an extra scene was added for them, showing the prison governor finding the document and starting to read.)
One of the great legends around Kind Hearts and Coronets is that Alec Guinness plays eight roles as members of the D'Ascoyne family. At the time it seemed to show enormous versatility. In fact, most are little more than cameos and caricatures with only a few lines of dialogue rather than character studies (a foghorn-voiced admiral, a boring general, a Suffragette). In the more extended characters Guinness does show some skill, but the types are so different (young photographer, old parson, fastidious banker, country gentleman) that it would be hard not to.
The film really belongs to Dennis Price, whose Louis changes subtly but distinctly as he rises through life. From suburban shop worker, to City banker working with Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne (“my cousin, you know”) to fully-fledged nobleman, his sophistication and elegance change constantly with his circumstances. It is a subtle performance, very true to life, and probably a peak in Price's career until he played Jeeves to Ian Carmichael's Bertie Wooster on BBC television in the 1960's. Thanks to the BBC's policy of re-using old video tapes, these performances are almost completely lost.