"Kind hearts are more than coronets/And simple faith than Norman blood." - Lord Alfred Tennyson
"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms." - Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), Kind Hearts and Coronets
"Ealing comedy" isn't merely a description, it's practically a genre unto itself - beginning with Kind Hearts and Coronets, director Robert Hamer's wicked 1949 adaptation of Roy Horniman's novel "Israel Rank," which stars Alec Guinness in a staggering eight roles, Ealing Studios would turn out one comedic masterpiece after another for roughly the next decade and a half. Bone dry and jet black, the wit on display in Kind Hearts and Coronets is very much of the proper British school, all manners and airs.
Dennis Price stars as Louis Mazzini, a man who feels wronged by his station in life. As we meet him, he's awaiting the hangman's noose and wrapping up his memoirs, a rather scandalous account of how murdered his way to the top of the D'Ascoyne family tree - it seems Mazzini's mother, who was of some relation to the D'Ascoynes, was scorned upon her death, leaving young Louis to take up for her.
As he insinuates himself through various disguises and plots, Louis also finds himself torn between Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and Edith D'Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), both of whom are otherwise engaged. So it goes that Louis methodically slays each living member of the D'Ascoyne family (all eight played by Guinness) until an unexpected twist lands him in jail.
Hamer and John Dighton's temporally fractured narrative certainly gives Kind Hearts and Coronets a very contemporary feel; the vermouth dry wit and subtly biting setpieces are the very hallmarks of the renowned "Ealing comedy" - the film's light touch helps leaven the truly grim subject matter. Kind Hearts and Coronets marked the ascension of Ealing Studios into legend - it's funny films such as these that helped establish what would evolve into a thriving British comedy scene.
As expected, Criterion delivers another stunning restoration of quite dated material - this 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is crisp and radiant, with inky blacks and near-flawless grayscale. If there are any defects to be found, they're of such insignificance as to be practically invisible - there are scant flecks and spots, but this is, first and foremost, a breathtaking visual representation.
Much like the image, Criterion has digitally scrubbed the soundtrack of Kind Hearts and Coronets, resulting in a clear, occasionally strident Dolby 1.0 mono track. The clipped British accents tend to trail off slightly so you may need the optional English subtitles in order to decipher precisely what's been said.
Spread across two discs, the supplemental material included here is of expected Criterion quality, beginning with a booklet containing an essay by film critic/historian Philip Kemp. In addition to the feature on the first disc, a fullscreen theatrical trailer, the American ending to Kind Hearts and Coronets and stills galleries. On the second disc, Criterion furnishes "Made In Ealing: The Story of Ealing Studios," a 75-minute 1986 BBC "Omnibus" documentary on the history of the venerable British institution and a rare, 68-minute Alec Guinness interview, conducted in 1977 on Michael Parkinson's BBC talk show.
Featuring Alec Guinness in a staggering eight roles, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a classic "Ealing comedy" which wittily indulges in satirical setpieces about upper class murder. Criterion's reliably deluxe package is thorough and engrossing. Highly recommended.