Black humor is tough to pull off, and over the years, there have been far more misses than hits. Kind Hearts and Coronets is an oldie but goodie about a badie, done with such style and good humor, you’ll forget that the lead character is a— dare I say, serial killer.
The screen adaptation of the 1907 novel The Autobiography of a Criminal borrowed its name from Tennyson’s Lady Clara Vere de Vere, specifically the verse that reads, "Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman Blood." It is, to my mind, an odd choice, in that it requires some pondering to understand why it was chosen. Having pondered, I believe it speaks to the great and unfair divide between the haves and have-nots, and, in this case, perceived right above might.
And then again, maybe not.
Thankfully, the title is the only thing about this Edwardian tale that requires the viewer to do anything more than sit back and enjoy the show. And what a show it is!
Our story begins in a prison cell, where, on the night before he is to be hanged, Louis Mazzini, the tenth Duke of Chalfont, is finishing up his memoirs; meticulously detailing the way he went about systematically murdering eight members of the aristocratically—endowed D’Ascoyne family in order to avenge perceived wrongs and inherit a title he sees as his birthright. It is a tale of revenge, unrequited love and ambition: a Molotov cocktail with a Hitchcockian ending that is well worth the wait.
Released in 1949, and digitally restored in 2011, this British import is clever, engaging and artfully played by both Dennis Price, as the ambitious perpetrator and his late father, and the amazing Sir Alec Guiness, who takes on the roles of all eight doomed D’Ascoynes.
The film’s back story is key to its high-brow title. It seems that years before, Louis’ mother—a woman of high pedigree, married beneath her, a decision that led her haughty D’Ascoynes family to disown her. It was a happy but short-lived union, that came to an end when the new father died of a heart attack moments after seeing his son for the first time.
But life goes on. Years pass, and young Louis is now a young man. Anxious to give her son a leg up in the world, the widow Mazzini writes to her banker cousin Ascoine D’Ascoynes, asking if he might find a place for her son in his organization. Not surprisingly, her letter goes unanswered, leaving Louis to take on a menial job as a draper’s assistant.
Things come to a head when his mother’s dying wish to be interred in the family vault is denied and the love of his life— the beautiful but class-conscious Silbella (Valerie Hobson) rebuffs him, that Louis sets out on a calculating path of revenge from which there is no return.
And so it is literally onward and upward, as the young man methodically and creatively eliminates every member of the D’Ascoynes family standing between him and dukedom.
While it may seem ludicrous to say that a film about a serial killer is fun, in this case, it is absolutely true. Step by step, job by job, and heir by heir Price’s vindictively charming villain takes us through the murder and mayhem that ultimately led his undoing.
I adore this little movie; black and white and dead all over, it is extremely entertaining, and I predict that, like the ill-fated D’Ascoynes, you too will get a bang, kick, shot and charge out of the would-be-duke’s high flying, earth shaking, wave-making, belly-aching antics.
Love your humor dark? I suggest you finish off the night with a visit to youtube.com, where you can catch Elaine Stritch’s killer rendition of Rogers and Hart's To Keep My Love Alive.
Kind Hearts and Coronets and To Keep My Love Alive: two insanely entertaining bits of merriment that are—forgive me one last pun— to die for.