Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, UK)
This doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s prison movies lists. And nor, I suspect, should it be. But I was keen to have a look at it nonetheless, as it’s topped and tailed by prison scenes and the whole story is told by a condemned man due to be hanged the next morning.
The man, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price), is the tenth Duke of Chalfont, but his path to the dukedom has been… unconventional. His mother, a D’Ascoyne, married beneath her for love, was rejected by the rest of her blue blood family, and died in poverty. Mazzini seeks to avenge his mother’s poor treatment, and improve his own circumstances, by aspiring to the dukedom himself. This requires him, quite simply, to knock off all (or at least most) of those ahead of him in line. Which he does, with aplomb.
While he manages lots of D’Ascoyne notches on his belt, it is his enduring affair with his childhood sweetheart Sibella Hallward (Joan Greenwood), complicated just a tad by his betrothal to the stately Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the widow of victim No.2 Henry D’Ascoyne, that leads to him being installed as noble-in-residence at Pentonville, convicted of the murder of Sibella’s boring husband, Lionel.
Louis’s custody conditions in his large condemned cell befit his title. He remains the essence of English gentility, despite his mastery of English massacring. It is all very civilised. He pens his memoirs in a bow tie and smoking jacket with a decanter of wine on his desk, and the prison Governor, ‘Colonel’ (Clive Morton) drops in from time to time to ensure that everything is in order. The hangman, Elliott (Miles Malleson), signals his intention to retire after reaching the pinnacle of his career in hanging a duke: “After using the silken rope… never again be content with hemp.”
It is a wonderfully dark, very British comedy. Price is superb as the urbane, cynical and caddish killer, Greenwood splendid as the wanton, unfulfilled Sibella, while Alec Guinness draws much of the attention playing eight doomed D’Ascoynes (including the wonderfully named Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, and Lady Agatha). Much fun is poked at the aristocracy.
It is delightful; a classic. Just not quite a prison movie.
Posted on July 3rd, 2018 at 10:05 pm. Updated on July 3rd, 2018 at 10:05 pm.