Unlike many in my age group (I was born in the mid 1960s) my first exposure to Sir Alec Guinness wasn't through the original Star Wars pictures. Rather, it was the quirky British comedy The Horse's Mouth that introduced me to one of the great screen actors of all time and permanently etched his character from the film on my impressionable mind.
The Horse's Mouth is a story about the nature of creativity and society's interaction with the creative individual. Guinness (who adapted the screenplay from a popular novel) plays Gulley Jimson, an eccentric painter whose success as a young man seems to have abandoned him in middle age. Having fallen out of favor with the critics as his style matured Jimson reacts by putting down his brushes and taking up the grift as a way of life. From his base (a boat moored on the Thames) Jimson plies his new craft of bilking former patrons out of as much money as he can but Gulley isn't much of a con man and his schemes all go immediately awry.
Frustrated and looking for both a monetarily rewarding and creatively satisfying outlet Jimson decides to take up painting again but rather than simply picking up a canvas and some oils he instead insinuates himself into the lives of some fawning fans and begins work on a massive mural in their home. The problem is that his new patrons don't completely understand Jimson's intent. The couple goes away on vacation and, unbeknownst to them, Jimson moves into their house, begins painting the mural on one of their walls and virtually destroys the residence in the process.
Of course Jimson's unorthodox approach to art and its patronage doesn't win him any friends and he finds himself once again outcast and despised. Undaunted the artist takes up a new project, this time beginning work on a gigantic version of the Last Judgment on the side of a condemned building. As Jimson works he recruits the aid of many of his followers and patrons but just when the painting is nearing completion the group discovers that the city has plans of razing the derelict structure immediately. Will Gulley take the destruction of his latest masterpiece as the final blow to his artistic career or will he find a way to defy the city and defeat the bureaucrats that oppose him?
The Horse's Mouth is both a delightful comedy and a detailed character study thanks to the formidable talents of Mr. Guinness. The film's script is filled with memorable lines, enjoyably ridiculous situations and several very unexpected plot twists. It's also an examination of the profound effect that fringe figures like artists have on mainstream thought. At the center of it all is Guinness's masterful performance. His work in this film is so convincing that for me Gulley Jimson seems as real a figure as Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet.
About the DVD
The Criterion design team isn't known for flashy full-motion menus. Granted, there are a handful of releases that sport such graphics but for the most part Criterion excels at producing the tasteful static variety. In this case the screens are based on one of the movie's theatrical one-sheets.
The transfer for this release was created using the original 35mm internegative. The film elements weren't restored, simply preserved in the digital format. Luckily the internegative was in pretty good shape. The color fidelity is simply fantastic. There are a wide variety of very natural looking colors on screen ranging from vivid reds and blues to lifelike skin tones. Contrast and black depth are right on with dark scenes exhibiting satisfactory detail without sacrificing true deep blacks. The film elements are a little battered with age and you'll see lots of small imperfections including cigarette burns, various scratches, pinholes and periodic picture instability. There's also a good deal of grain in evidence. These problems shouldn't cause you to shy away from this release though. Considering its age (The Horse's Mouth was released in 1958) the film is in fantastic shape and the transfer does it justice.
The condition of the monaural soundtrack for The Horse's Mouth is much the same as the video portion of the release. Its dynamic range won't put your home theater through its paces but it is quite serviceable and shows only minor signs of age. There are a few small pops, a couple of brief volume dropouts and some distortion in the louder passages but nothing that distracts from the enjoyment of the film.
Though a little sparse the extras included on this Criterion release are quite delightful. First up is a wonderful seventeen-minute interview with director Ronald Neame. He looks back with great fondness on the production of The Horse's Mouth and recounts lots of interesting anecdotes and tidbits. The interview plays under a collection of production stills from the movie.
Next up is the original theatrical trailer. This footage provides a nice contrast to the feature in terms of physical preservation. The trailer is battered, faded, scratched and generally tired looking. It's a nice addition nonetheless.
The final extra is my personal favorite even though it has only a tangential connection to the main film. Daybreak Express is a 16mm sepia tone short film made by D.A. Pennebaker. Set to the jazz song of the same name by Duke Ellington, Daybreak Express is an extraordinary collection of images taken from a commuter train making its way into the core of 1950s New York City. Pennebaker handles his camera with singular skill and produces in the process some of the most enchanting and beautiful compositions ever set to film. His moving images are particularly reminiscent of still photographs of Georgia O'Keefe. Accompanying Daybreak Express is a delightful introduction by Mr. Pennebaker explaining how his film and The Horse's Mouth came to be linked so closely together.
The Horse's Mouth is a gracefully entertaining comedy that pulls off with ease what Hollywood seems to have so much trouble producing these days: a story with depth, subtlety, relevant social commentary and finely realized character. Alec Guinness is at the height of his prowess as an actor and writer in this film and it should make a fine addition to just about any collection. I rate this film Highly Recommended.