Kind Hearts and Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, 1949), a product of Britain’s successful Ealing Studios, has become something of a favorite among British audiences; in 1999, it was ranked #6 on the British Film Institute’s list of “Top 100 British Films.” While it’s admittedly very funny, I can’t help but feel that in many ways it represents the worst aspects of British cinema—a kind of restraint or stylistic bloodlessness, coupled with a vague self-satisfaction with its own drollness. (It is, indeed, a delightfully witty film, and Alec Guinness’ brilliance as an actor is beyond question. But must we be so constantly reminded of these facts?) The film comes to life most fully when Guinness is on-screen; his caricatures, and the intricately devised ways in which they are systematically bumped off, are the funniest things in the movie. In their sheer zaniness, the murder scenes call to mind Road Runner cartoons, especially when a bomb is hidden in a jar of caviar. Things get sluggish, though, whenever we turn our attention to our protagonist (Dennis Price), talking interminably with his would-be lovers: it’s as if we’re watching Oscar Wilde with all of the epigrams taken out.
Kind Hearts and Coronets becomes much more interesting when considered in the context of British black comedy, which reached a high point onstage, onscreen, and in print in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Consider this film’s blithe malice alongside Evelyn Waugh’s savage Hollywood novel The Loved One (published 1948; adapted by Tony Richardson in 1965); Joe Orton’s funeral-parlor farce Loot (1965); Muriel Spark’s sad-funny thriller Memento Mori (1959), with its cast of dying geriatrics; Chaplin’s self-described “comedy of murders” Monsieur Verdoux (1947); or the cheekily nasty Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965), many episodes of which blended Hitchcock’s own dark sense of humor with that of Roald Dahl. It may not be cinematically cutting-edge, but Kind Hearts and Coronets stands as an important artifact from a period in twentieth-century British culture when comedies about death and murder flourished—culminating, perhaps, in the Fawlty Towers episode “The Kippers and the Corpse” (1979).