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The Horse's Mouth

The Horse's Mouth
Criterion 154
1958 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 97 min. / Street Date June 4, 2002 / $29.95
Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Renée Houston, Mike Morgan, Robert Coote, Arthur Macrae, Veronica Turleigh, Michael Gough, Reginald Beckwith, Ernest Thesiger
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Paintings by John Bratby
Art Direction Bill Andrews
Film Editor Anne V. Coates
Original Music Kenneth V. Jones
Written by Alec Guinness from the novel by Joyce Cary
Produced by John Bryan, Albert Fennell, Ronald Neame
Directed by Ronald Neame

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 Gulley Jimson (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 second film.

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 or available 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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