For this week’s post, I’m digging into two older films, one I’ve never seen, and one that is among my favorite of all time. This week’s films are:
Robert Hamer – Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Richard Lester – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
They’re both comedies, but very different types of comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark comedy, and A Hard Day’s Night is more of a slapstick comic romp. Do they work together? Or is it a mismatch?
Let’s get into it.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
This is a film about Louis, whose mother has been disowned from her noble British family for marrying for love. Instead of inheriting a dukedom, Louis is now considered an outcast. When his mother’s dying wish to be buried with her family is denied, Louis decides that he will kill every family member above him, ensuring there are no other claimants to the dukedom.
The film stars Dennis Price as Louis, along with Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood as various love interests. But most importantly, it stars Alec Guinness as every member of the family that has shunned Louis, 8 in all. It’s a powerhouse performance from Guinness. Every member of the D’Ascoyne family is different. He plays young, old, man, woman, simple, brilliant, kind and callous. On this blog so far we’ve seen Guinness at the beginning of his career, and at the end of his career. But this is Guinness beginning to come into his own. This is only 3 years after Great Expectations, but he’s already proving he can do things that most other actors can’t do. Many actors don’t have roles this diverse over their entire careers, much less in a single film.
But the focus of this film is on Louis. We meet him in his prison cell, as he’s writing his memoirs before his execution the next morning, we also learn that he is a duke. The film is very stingy with information, choosing when and how to reveal it, only giving hints as to what has happened. For example, early on, Louis is remembering lessons in the Ten Commandments, he mentions that he never had any problems with Thou Shalt Not Steal, hinting that perhaps he did have problems with Thou Shalt Not Kill.
The film sets up the people around Louis before we meet his estranged family. Everything in the first part of the movie sets up and explains everything that happens after. We understand why Louis has such hatred for his family, and what is driving him. To be clear, Louis is very much not a hero. He is driven by vengeance and petty concerns.He is scheming, and two faced. He doesn’t get to marry Sibella, the woman he wants, who laughs at him when he tells her he might be a duke someday, but then continues seeing her after she is married, realizing that he doesn’t have to deal with her problems that way.
When he meets Edith later in the film, he doesn’t particularly like her, but feels that she might make a good duchess, and pursues her for no other reason. He meets Edith after killing her husband, one of the many people between him and the dukedom. The first person he kills is Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the direct heir. We don’t feel terrible about this, because he’s clearly a bad person. But then we meet the next D’Ascoyne, a charming, simple man, living in a village, who loves to take photographs. This is Edith’s husband. Sure he sneaks around drinking behind his wifes back, and even goes to the local brothel, but he’s generally kind, and at least tries to keep his very proper wife in the dark.
There’s a very funny scene here where Louis has ingratiated himself to Edith by telling her the truth of his parentage. He has surmised that she will like him even better for telling an uncomfortable truth. He’s right. In the scene, Louis has sabotaged Henry’s darkroom, switching out kerosene for gasoline in a lamp. He sits having a lovely conversation with Edith as Henry sneaks off to develop some pictures. We hear the explosion, as does Louis, but he continues having the conversation while smoke rises over the hedge, ignoring it while Edith tells him all about Henry’s issues.
Louis is invited to the funeral as Edith’s companion, and he is able to make note of the remaining members of the family, all older. He also manages to ingratiate himself with one of the older D’Ascoyne’s, the banker, who offers him a job. Louis continues killing off D’Ascoynes, or simply waiting for them to die, in increasingly silly ways. He visits one of the older members of the family, a parson, and poisons his drink, knowing that it will be chalked up to a heart attack. One of the members of the family, a suffragette (which the film seems to frown upon), is on a balloon ride, leafleting, when Louis fires an arrow at the balloon, popping it. Of course, hot air balloons don’t plummet that fast, but it’s all fairly silly. The next member dies when his ship goes down in the ocean after running into another ship. Every other member of the crew is safe, but the captain feels like he must go down with the ship. The general is killed with a bomb in a jar of caviar.
Finally, there are just two members left, the banker and the Duke himself. The banker is portrayed as kind and thoughtful, a good businessman, and one of the only D’Ascoyne’s who didn’t treat Louis as an outcast. He has a stroke, and Louis counts himself relieved he doesn’t have to kill him.
The Duke is killed after Louis has made his proposal to Edith, and it has been accepted. Louis and Edith visit the Duke, as Louis has been accepted into the family officially. But the Duke mentions that he’s getting remarried to a young woman, so that he can begin having more children. Louis has to work fast. He manages to concoct a hunting accident, but not before revealing his entire plan to the Duke. Once the banker dies from his stroke, Louis is named the Duke.
But it doesn’t last long, as an inspector from Scotland Yard comes to visit him. Louis wonders which murder they’ve solved. But it turns out that Sibella, his mistress has identified him in the murder of her husband, whom Louis has turned down for a loan from the bank.
The last third of the film shows Louis dealing with a trial, and we see every cold, calculated decision he’s made come back on him. But his scheming brain even manages to find a way out of this one. I’ll leave it to you to watch to see how it happens.
I had tried to watch this movie several years ago, but just wasn’t able to concentrate. Now I see why. The first third of the movie is all setup. We don’t even know much of what the plot might be until 15 minutes in. The film is funny, but it’s a dark, dry humor. Tough to get into unless you’re really paying attention.
But the real draw here is Alec Guinness. I’ve seen quite a lot of his films from this era, like the Man in the White Suit and Our Man in Havana, and he’s always a standout. This film really shows what he’s capable of. He often played an everyman in a lot of these films, someone relatable, but in this film, he manages to disappear into several different roles. It’s not a novelty act. It’s real, deep acting, and it’s amazing.
The film is exceptionally well made. The writing pays out the information we need slowly, delighting and intriguing us when it’s finally revealed. Dennis Price is excellent, showing us how cold and callous he can be, while still being someone we want to root for in a strange way.
All in all, the film is wonderful. Watch it, then go find a dozen other Alec Guinness films to take in.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
A Hard Day’s Night is a film about a day in the life of The Beatles, filmed at the height of their popularity, just as they were becoming the biggest band of all-time. It’s both an inside look at the most famous band in the world, and a marketing fantasy. It’s also revolutionary. In this film we’re going to see the birth of a new artform: the music video.
A Hard Day’s Night stars the 4 Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. None of them are actors, but they all do a fair job of playing ‘themselves’. The film is directed by Richard Lester, who later directed some of the early Superman films with Christopher Reeve. The Beatles are the stars, but Lester makes the film what it is.
The Beatles are playing themselves, but there’s very little reality here. It’s based on a day in their life, and there was definitely research done, but let’s be honest: this is film is a cynical marketing stunt, trying to capitalize on the band’s popularity in a new medium (not to mention the right to distribute the soundtrack album, filled with audio gold). But Lester worked with what he had, and made an all-time classic. Instead of asking The Beatles to perform complex scenes, or long monologues, he essentially lets them goof off. John essentially plays a cartoon character, more like Bugs Bunny than a person. George and Ringo speak in strange non-sequiturs, that somehow start to make sense as the film goes on. Paul plays someone kind of responsible, with his ‘grandfather’ coming along that he has to watch out for, but we see plenty of him jumping into the antics as well.
Lester then surrounds them with experienced, if not familiar actors (at least not to Americans). This is really well illustrated in a scene early in the movie. The Beatles have made it to the hotel and are looking to get out into the city and enjoy themselves. Paul’s grandfather, who ends up being the main antagonist in the film has stolen an invitation to a fancy club from Ringo and is out on the town himself. Lester cuts between the comic slapstick of Paul’s grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell, an experienced comic actor, and the Beatles hanging out at a club, dancing, flirting with women, having fun. There isn’t even sound running when The Beatles are on screen, just a series of Beatles songs. Meanwhile, the grandfather has a series of fast-paced comedy bits with impeccable timing and wordplay. The Beatles are all super-stars, but none of them could have pulled that off.
So none of the Beatles are actors, but they are performers, and Lester takes full advantage of this, creating the real magic of the film: the music sequences. Throughout the film, the film takes breaks for The Beatles to perform songs. A lot of these are done in the context of the group rehearsing for a TV performance that evening. But some are spontaneous performances. The first of these occurs on a train the group is riding. They end up in a baggage car surrounded by young women, separated by a cage. The Beatles start playing cards, but as one of their songs starts playing (“Should’ve Known Better”), they are suddenly playing their instruments as the girls swoon. The scene is shot stylistically, with extreme closeups on the band while they play and sing. Everyone gets their closeups, and we get shots of the girls as well trying to interact with the band.
This is the birth of the modern music video. Of course, there had been performers filmed performing before. Early musicals were frequently done in a revue style, where there was no story, just a performance done in a stylistic way. But these were generally shot very simply, like a stage play filmed. Very few camera angles and setups, and the performers simply danced along with the song.
But Lester didn’t have dancers, he had rock stars, so he had to do something different. In this film, we get little cheats into the fantasy of The Beatles music, where one moment they’re playing cards, the next they’re all playing their instruments, and then back to playing cards at the end of the scene. We get a scene of them rehearsing, but all carefully arranged to be visually pleasing, with the story of the moment included in the performance. When “Can’t Buy Me Love” starts, The Beatles escape the confines of the theater and run around outside like little kids. We don’t see them playing instruments, but they’re playing little games, racing each other, having fun on playground equipment and so on.
Finally, when we get to the finale, when they’re actually performing for a crowd, we get an amazing extended sequence showing the band performing. This is the most genuine scene in the film. The Beatles are no longer playing at what their day is like, this is their real life, and at the time, they were the best in the world. The people in the crowd aren’t acting, they are in the moment, and they are losing their minds. And The Beatles aren’t half-assing it either. We can see them pouring their hearts into the performance, sweating on stage. If you’ve never seen the sequence, take a look at it, it’s one of the best musical performances ever put on film. The angles Lester chose are legendary, and increased the iconic stature of the band. He managed to capture the essence of the band and manufacture it at the same time.
This film is pure joy from start to finish. It slows down a bit in the last third when Ringo wanders off on his own. There’s nothing wrong with the sequence in itself, but it slows the movie down when we’ve been accustomed to a rapid pace. Once Ringo returns, we get the final excellent sequence, so it’s no problem really. In between each member of the band gets their moment. They’re frequently together, but each member gets a little scene or bit that showcases them a bit. John gets a cute conversation with a woman who thinks she recognizes him and an absurd scene in a bathtub. Ringo gets his time out on the town, Paul has endless bits with his grandfather, and George gets an amazing scene where he is confronted by a talent agent who’s looking for someone to look pretty next to his client and talk about how much he loves the fashion choices they’re presenting.
This film would start a series of films that The Beatles starred in, frequently related to albums that they were releasing: Help, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be, which was a straight documentary just before they broke up. Even when they weren’t making feature length films, they would frequently make short films of music videos in lieu of making public appearances. The work that Lester did on this film set the stage for the modern music video. And the Beatles kept it up on their own during the rest of their career.
If you’re not a Beatles fan, then maybe the film won’t capture you the way it did for me. But regardless, every music fan should see this movie and understand where a lot of the style of their favorite music videos came from.
The Double Feature
I wasn’t sure how A Hard Day’s Night would pair with anything but perhaps another concert film. But this pairing worked really well. Both of them being British films probably helped. They’re also both comedies, though Kind Hearts and Coronets is a much darker humor, while A Hard Day’s Night is essentially slapstick.
The acting nod of course goes to Kind Hearts and Coronets. The Beatles in general were fairly good actors considering they had no previous experience in it, but they can’t compare to Alec Guinness playing 8 different roles. But directing has to go to A Hard Day’s Night. Richard Lester took on a job whose expectations were to get some shots of The Beatles, throw some songs on top of it and call it a day, and created something unforgettable.
Things are going pretty well for me lately. I’m focused, I’m getting work done, and I feel good about the direction things are heading. That’s not to say things will stay up forever, but I’ve found some great new hobbies to do in my spare time that really make me feel accomplished and I’m getting a lot of happiness and calm out of that.
So let’s look at next week’s films. I didn’t have a good idea of what to do this week, so I decided I’d look closely at my DVD shelf and see what caught my eye. Once I find that, then I’ll look for something that fits in with it.
Next week’s films will be:
Mark Romanek – Never Let Me Go (2010)
Spike Jonze – Her (2013)
Both are very recent films, and both take a look at technology from a darker perspective. I’ve seen both before, but I’m looking forward to revisiting them.
See you next week.