Of all those involved with the British film industry in the 40s and 50s, Robert Hamer was perhaps the most intelligent and talented. He was arguably Ealing Studios’ brightest star, yet his career was short and ultimately tragic. He made his directing debut in 1945 and died largely unfulfilled at the age of 52 in 1963. His descent into alcoholism was one of the great tragedies of cinema. But at least it could be said that he made one masterpiece. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is not only one of the best British films, but also one of the most extraordinary black comedies cinema has known.
To call it an Ealing comedy is really a misnomer. Kind Hearts was much cooler, darker and more aware of sexual irony than most of the genre.
Hamer wanted to do three things: make a film that was totally different from what had gone before, use the English language in a more interesting way, and pay as little regard as possible to moral conventions. People have said that his style was a combination of Wildean wit and the pessimism of such post-war French directors as Marcel Carné.
That he succeeded, in spite of working for the puritanical Michael Balcon, was a minor miracle. Another was that the film was a success, making the reputation of Alec Guinness, confirming that of Dennis Price and reaching the status of a classic that could be viewed simply as funny and clever entertainment if its serious undertones were ignored.
It is revived so often that it seems hardly necessary to detail the plot, most of it told in flashback. Price plays Louis Mancini, condemned to hang for a murder of which he is innocent, and writing his memoirs about all those he actually committed. His mother had been disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying a singer and left to live in poverty.
Louis vows vengeance and slowly eliminates those who stand between him and the dukedom he is deter mined to claim for her sake. In doing so he becomes as cold and calculating as the horrid d’Ascoyne family itself. But the film’s major trick was to have Guinness playing every one of them.
Guinness’s performance is a tour de force. Nine characters in one film has to be, and most of them are a superb mixture of disguise and parodic vigour. But Price’s Louis ought not to be underestimated. A homosexual at a time when it was virtually impossible to admit it, he put a whole slice of himself into his performance.
Hamer worked against all the rules. He allowed the suppressed passion of the story full rein, getting near a particularly English kind of eroticism. His ambiguous feelings about the family life Balcon espoused were made clear. And all the time, he let people laugh as if he were merely making a well-honed comedy.
It seems almost unbelievable that Hamer’s career went downhill after this. Perhaps Kind Hearts was a giant fluke. But there is little doubt English good taste closed in on Hamer and most of British cinema until the 60s reignited the spirit of revolt.