Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An engagingly unique British comedy, The Horse's Mouth is just as funny as the earlier Ealing
productions that springboarded Alec Guinness to fame. But the actor's adaptation of Joyce Cary's
satirical novel reaches for higher significance, and succeeds. Ne'er-do-well
Gully Jimson, for all his foul deeds, has the soul of an Artist, something which comes
through to inspire us, even as we shake our heads in disapproving disbelief.
Just released from gaol for making threats on the telephone, penniless artist
(Alec Guinness) immediately resorts to blackmail schemes to continue his obsessive
expressionist paintings. Young Nosey (Mike Morgan), a disciple convinced of Gully's
genius, tries to steer him safely. But Gully abuses Nosey worse than anyone, and
proceeds to extort money from rich 'benefactors' like Hickson (Ernest Thesiger), who
immediately sees through Gully's disguises and alerts the authorities.
After being turned down by his ex-wife (Renée Houston) and his present bartender
girlfriend Coker (Kay Walsh), Gulley gets his chance when he finagles a
large wall to paint in the luxurious apartment of the Beeders (Robert Coote & Veronica
Turleigh), while they're on holiday. A fellow scoundrel, sculptor Abel (Michael Gough)
invites himself in on the good thing, and in the process of their Art the two artists destroy
the Beeders' apartment (as well as another downstairs, through a hole accidentally smashed in
the floor). All of Gully's crimes are but a means to enable him to pursue his
elusive muse, a quest that animates the grimy old man and keeps him on the eternal
road of discovery.
Shot in bright color to take advantage of the exciting paintings, The Horse's Mouth is
indeed a cross between an Ealing comedy and a painting lecture, with Guinness creating
perhaps his very best character. A key scene (for those who didn't
read the book) happens when we find out that Gulley Jimson isn't a failure - he and
his ex-wife visit a museum where a long line of visitors wait to see his older work.
Jimson ambles down the steps like a bum, totally disassociated from his celebrated
past. The show is like that all the way through. Gulley Jimson is an artist so
focused on his Art that nothing else matters - his appearance, what others think
of him, or what gets destroyed along the way to his vision. He's blind and selfish
and grievously mistreats poor Nosey, if only to disabuse the kid of any notion
that there is any future reward in helping a 'genius'.
Guinness is delightfully scruffy and rasps out a voice like a file on an iron railing.
His rambling walk and other character flourishes aren't a collection of schtick to dress
up the character (like, say, Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy) but seem to come from
within the actor himself, as if Guinness had never played anyone else. A master of
multiple parts (a feat never bettered by Peter Sellers, no matter how hard he tried),
Guinness makes Gulley's chicanery more than just the work of a con man. He snookers
the terminally gullible Nosey, patronizes his ex-wife, and makes an honest stab
at making Coker see the beauty in a good painting. When he regards the possibilities
of a 'perfect foot', there's some kind of weird light in his eyes, and when he
sees his finished work as being good, he has the unstoppable enthusiasm of a young boy.
Guinness and director Ronald Neame press the Ealing style of comedy into
broad slapstick extremes that constantly surprise, but never go too far. Both of the
women in Gulley's life love him in their way, but know they cannot possess
him. Neither understands his art, nor have illusions about his character, so
he doesn't get very far with either one. Kay Walsh's wonderful harridan is devoid of
femininity, but adorable nonetheless, while Renée Houston fusses interminably.
The often hammy Michael Gough (we're used to seeing him in over-the-top horror roles)
makes the manic sculptor into a twin for Gulley. The two monomaniacs attend to their
projects like criminals digging a tunnel into a bank vault.
Anyone who has ever had to solicit funds will be
tickled by Gulley's incessant telephone assault on the snooty Hickson (Ernest
Thesiger of The Man in the White Suit and The Bride of Frankenstein), or the
cajoling flimflammery he enlists to scoot the far-too-trusting Beeders out their
front door. Gulley is similar to Guinness' earlier scientist in
The Man in the White Suit in that both are adventurers on a quest, and society,
other individuals, the law and logic are but obstacles on the way. The scientist of
White Suit begins as an underdog hero and slowly develops into an unlikely
menace to society. His scientific creations could doom mankind, but he wouldn't care, and
we last see him walking away dreaming up more inventions, the potentially negative effects of which
don't concern him in the least. Gulley, on the other hand, comes off initially as an unredeemable
crook, but eventually resolves into a benign spirit drifting off into dreamland. It is as if his
genius were so powerful, this world could not contain it.
Criterion's DVD of The Horse's Mouth is presented in a handsome 16:9 transfer
that flatters Arthur Ibbetson's color cinematography of the scruffy dockside
streets and luxury apartments. DVD producer Karen Stetler has assembled an
amiable stack of goodies. The booklet includes informative essays by director
Neame, Bruce Eder, and Ian Christie. On the disc is a nice interview with
director Neame, where he brings forth an endless string of interesting detail.
One sad note concerns promising actor Mike Morgan, who fell sick with
meningitis during the filming and died swiftly thereafter. This was only his
Also on the disc is an extra that recreates The Horse's Mouth's
initial New York run - a short subject called Daybreak Express, about a
NYC railway line. It's colorful and creative and was made by D.A.
Pennebaker, who appears in a new introductory monologue about the
commercial realities of getting a short film shown in '50s New York.
The Horse's Mouth opens with a gigantic, color United Artists logo. So many great films were
released by UA over the years .... and most reverted back to their makers. Many are lost in time
only in miserable versions because elements don't seem to exist. It makes you grateful that
a show like this one is so well preserved on DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Horse's Mouth rates:
Supplements: Essays, Ronald Neame interview, Short subject Daybreak Express, interview
with D.A. Pennebaker
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 7, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson