Having the tone and content match in film is important in terms of creating narrative that suits the expectations of the target audience. Wildly playing with those expectations is a major risk, but can create some of the most original and refreshing work if handled with focus and grace. Kind Hearts and Coronets is such a timeless and singular masterwork; a dark with a capital D comedy told from the perspective of an unapologetic serial killer with clear narcissistic personality disorder, executed with the calm, posh, and static self-assuredness of a Jane Austen period romance.
Director Robert Hamer's stubbornly deadpan approach to depicting what are essentially a series of horrific murders brought upon a series of bourgeoisie caricatures (All played hilariously by the great Alec Guiness) by a wily, status-obsessed man (Dennis Price) consumed by a desire of vengeance upon being stripped of his deserved place in English royalty as a duke is the grandfather to dozens of similar modern dark comedies. So much so that it should be mandatory viewing for anyone claiming to be a die-hard Coen Brothers fan.
The story begins as the murderer, Louis (Price), is a day away from being hanged. He is a full-fledged duke when we meet him, leading to apt satire as the law around him bend over backwards to show fealty to a man they're hours away from killing in the name of the state. As he waits for his execution, Louis writes his confession in the form of a book. He was robbed of lineage for royalty when his mother was disowned from the family for marrying below her station. He grows up with tales about the cushy life that was denied him, and vows to kill any of his relatives in line for the title of duke so he can finally grasp what he believes he's owed.
This proves to be an easy task at first, since it only involves some research into the slimy private lives of his targets (One of the murders, taking place in a river, is almost affable in its simplicity), but as he gets closer to his goal, suspicion about his behavior begins to arise. Thanks to the framing device, we know that he did manage to kill all of his relatives and became the duke, but the fun is in the journey, not the destination.
Kind Hearts and Coronets breaks through its possible trappings of an episodic structure, having Louis move from one target after the other, by letting Guiness' unique performances for each character breathe on their own, and by also introducing one twist after the other to the proceedings. This is the kind of genius screenplay that can not only get away with a credible double twist during the third act, but a hilarious last minute reveal to button the whole experience in an unforgettable way.
Going against the sensationalism of the violent content, especially for 1949, Hamer employs a mostly static and calm period drama aesthetic to Kind Hearts and Coronets. The academy ratio, soft black-and-white cinematography is presented with great clarity in this 1080p transfer, along with some softness and grain that respectfully represents the film's period. There are minor scratches and dirt here and there, but nothing too obvious.
The DTS 2.0 track carries the film's original mono mix. It would have been better if this was a 1.0 track, but otherwise the dialogue is clear, with of course the tinny quality of sound from that era a natural part of the experience. This is a fairly quiet and dialogue-heavy film, going against the grain of the sensationalized content, so the audio reflects this perfectly.
Introduction: John Landis, who helmed his share of genre-bending dark comedies in the past, talks about his love of the film for 3 minutes.
Those British Faces: This is a loving half-hour documentary on Dennis Price. Well worth the time.
Interview with Douglas Slocombe: A half hour audio-only interview with the cinematographer. It was recorded in 1998, and is valuable for those interested in the film's technical execution.
Alternate U.S. Ending: The theatrical ending is pitch-perfect in its delicious irony. Skip this.
Commentary: Film critic Kat Ellinger provides an extensive amount of information about the film's themes and the behind-the-scenes story of the production.
We also get a Trailer.
Kind Hearts and Coronets still stands strong as one of the most original and interesting dark comedies in film history. Time has been very kind to it, especially considering the bevy of boundary-pushing filmmakers of the genre who have copied it during the many decades since its release. This Blu-ray does the film justice with a great transfer and some insightful extras.