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Film / Kind Hearts and Coronets

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"Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."

A 1949 British Black Comedy from Ealing Studios, starring Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, and Alec Guinness (who plays nine different members of the D'Ascoyne family, including an elderly suffragette).

Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Price) is the son of the daughter of the Duke of Chalfont and a poor Italian opera singer. Infuriated by the mésalliance, the D'Ascoyne family denies any knowledge of Louis's existence, and when his mother dies, will not even grant her burial in the family vault. Louis formulates a plan to kill all of the D'Ascoynes in various ridiculous ways, in order to gain what he sees as his justified revenge and rightful place at the head of the family. Meanwhile, Louis's childhood sweetheart, Sibella (Greenwood), is laying her own schemes for advancement... though his attractive cousin-in-law Edith (Hobson) stands in her way.

The movie has a very dry, ironic tone to it, but there are some moments of complete silliness. For instance, Louis kills one of the D'Ascoynes by shooting an arrow at her hot air balloon (and then reciting a humorous variation on the Longfellow poem "The Arrow and the Song" - see Rhymes on a Dime below).

Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman where the eponymous character is half-Jewish rather than half-Italian. The film changed Israel's name and heritage because the film had a Rank (J. Arthur) as its producer and a film about a half-Jewish serial-killer wouldn't have gone down very well so shortly after the fall of the Nazi Regime in Germany, though the book itself is not anti-Semitic.

Adapted into The Musical in 2014 as A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, nominated for 10 Tony Awards (winning 4, including Best Musical) in its Broadway run.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Quite a few things are taken away (mostly relatives/victims) and a few things added; the twist ending being the biggest thing. But the book is over 400 pages long so some changes were bound to be made. There are also changes that aren’t for the sake of brevity; Chalfont is Hammerton in the book and the d'Ascoynes are the Gascoynes.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Israel Rank becomes Louis Mazzini.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The Gascoynes. In the original novel, Louis/Israel's mother wasn't disowned over her marriage, and the only member of the family to mistreat her over it is dead of natural causes long before he decides to start killing his relatives for the title. Furthermore, rather than shun him or mistreat him when he tries to reconnect with the family, they're almost unanimously happy to meet the guy and treat him well. Also, young Ascoyne is a far nicer character in the book, and didn't get Louis/Israel fired from his job (instead, his father refused to give Louis/Israel a job, but changed his mind shortly after his son's death).
  • Affably Evil: Louis, very much so.
  • Ambiguous Ending: So were Louis's "memoirs" discovered or not? In the US version they were, but the original leaves it ambiguous (though it implies they would be).
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Though some of the d'Ascoynes seem less bad than others and Lord Ascoyne d'Ascoyne the banker actually seems like a nice guy — hence Louis's relief that he dies of natural causes and therefore doesn't have to be murdered. Young Henry is also an amiable doormat — Louis comments that "he seemed a very pleasant young fellow, and I regretted that our acquaintanceship must be so short." Which doesn't stop Louis from killing him and stealing his wife, of course. Then we have Louis... Upon his accession to the Dukedom, his speech to his people makes it seems as though he will be a Benevolent Boss — but what with murdering at least seven people (six d'Ascoynes, young Ascoyne's mistress, and who knows how many other people with that bomb), it could be argued that he's become a straight example.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: In-universe; Louis is posing as a colonial vicar from somewhere in Africa to ingratiate himself with Lord Henry who quizzes him on aspects of his fictional parish. He invents an utterly ludicrous indecipherable dialect.
  • Asshole Victim: Many of the d'Ascoynes. Especially Young Ascoyne, who gets Louis fired from his job.
  • Bad Habits: Louis adopts the identity of an African clergyman in order to get close to the Reverend Lord Henry d'Ascoyne.
  • Best Served Cold: Louis sleeps with his old rival's fiancee on the day before their wedding. As Louis remarks:
    "I couldn't help feeling that even Sibella's capacity for lying was going to be taxed to the utmost. Time had brought me revenge on Lionel, and as the Italian proverb says, revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold."
  • Betty and Veronica: Or as Louis puts it: "dear Edith, captivating Sibella".
  • Black Comedy: Doesn't get much blacker than a series of murders to earn a dukedom.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: When Louis accuses Sibella of attempting to blackmail him, he saves her the trouble of protesting his wording by adding that 'blackmail' is "an ugly word, but the right one, I think".
  • Captain Ersatz: Admiral d'Ascoyne's death in a ship collision closely resembles Admiral Sir George Tryon and the sinking of the HMS Victoria in 1887.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Louis practices archery with Edith d'Ascoyne. It comes in handy later.
  • Closer to Earth: The 2012 radio play sequel, ''Kind Hearts and Coronets: Like Father, Like Daughter", has an odd example in that Louis's illegitimate daughter Unity is written out of Edith's will, and true to the name of the play, she embarks on the same type of murder spree against six men standing to receive parts of the d'Ascoyne fortune. How does Unity fit the trope, then? She, unlike her father, is clever enough to ensure she's found innocent, hides her memoirs, and gets off scot-free to live Happily Ever After!
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: See the top of this page.
  • Concealing Canvas: Louis's family tree, on which he records who he has to kill to become Duke, is taped to the back of a painting.
  • Cool Old Guy: "The Banker" Lord Ascoyne d'Ascoyne who offers Louis a job even when he's completely ignored by the rest of the family. Louis laments at how he will regret having to kill the man who has shown him such kindness and is relieved when he dies from a stroke.
  • Cue the Flying Pigs: Discussed - after Sibella turns Louis' first marriage proposal, Louis protests he could become duke one day, to which Sibella replies, "Pigs could fly."
  • Double Vision: A particularly impressive example at the first funeral scene puts the six remaining Alec Guinnesses in one shot together.
  • The Edwardian Era: The setting of the story.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Louis, Sibella and Lionel are old school friends.
  • The Evil Prince: Louis, apart from the detail that the estate he's scheming for is a dukedom and not a kingdom.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • Louis references the Victorian meaning (a woman who has been seduced) when he kills the younger d'Ascoyne and his mistress: "I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death."
    • Despite his hatred of Lionel, especially after pressing his Berserk Button and even attacking him, he is fine leaving it at a slap and letting him stew in the ruin he created for himself. Ironically Lionel still ends up the one nemesis of Louis that costs him, due to the events that transpire from his suicide following this Cruel Mercy.
  • Femme Fatale: Sibella.
  • First-Person Smartass: Louis.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Louis seeks out weaknesses in his opponents and exploits them relentlessly.
  • Framing Device: Louis, while waiting to be executed for murder, writes a full explanation of how and why he committed the murders by way of explaining how he ended up being arrested for a murder he didn't commit.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Louis would have got away scot-free if not for Sibella, angry over being dumped for Edith, implicating him in the murder... of her husband, who actually committed suicide because he was facing financial ruin.
  • Funny Background Event: Henry d'Ascoyne's death. Louis puts gasoline in a lamp in Henry's darkroom, which goes up in a muffled explosion while Louis and Edith are conversing.
  • Going Down with the Ship: Admiral Lord Horatio d'Ascoyne saves Louis the trouble of murdering him by being so obstinately wrong-headed that he sinks his own ship, and insists on going down with her even though rescue was at hand.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Lionel's suicide note is necessary to clear Louis of the charge of his murder. Ironically, this is one of the few deaths in the movie for which Louis is not responsible.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The actresses in this film, especially Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, are often seen clad in the height of Edwardian-Era fashion.
  • Gotta Kill Them All: The people ahead of Louis in the line of succession.
  • Grapes of Luxury: Louis has them for his last meal.
  • The Hays Code: An alternate ending was required for the US to show the guards discovering Louis Mazzini's written memoirs/confessions to make it clear to the audience that he did not get away with the murders of his relatives. The UK version remains ambiguous on the subject.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with Louis in prison, then goes back to show how he got there.
  • Hunting "Accident": How Louis murders Ethelred.
  • Hypocrite: Louis when it comes to the Victorian meaning of a Fate Worse than Death (a woman losing her virginity before marriage). He uses this to rationalize murdering the mistress of young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne along with D'Ascoyne even though she'd done nothing against Louis and wasn't part of Louis' family vendetta. Yet he has no qualms (instead a great deal of smug satisfaction) at personally "inflicting" the same FWTD on Sibella.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Louis says he doesn't want to go hunting with the Duke, saying that "my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports". This, of course, after he's committed multiple murders.
  • Karma Houdini: Deconstructed. Sibella frames Louis for the death of her husband, and uses evidence against it to blackmail him into marrying her and murdering Edith. Whether Louis would carry this out or murder her instead as he contemplated is never revealed, especially after leaving evidence of the several murders he did commit within his prison cell.
  • Karmic Twist Ending: A Double Subversion. Louis gets sentenced to death for the one murder he didn't commit. Then he gets acquitted — and then he realizes that he left his memoirs (which describe his real murders) in his cell.
  • Klingon Promotion: This is how Louis becomes the Duke of Chalfont.
  • Literary Allusion Title/Title Drop: The title is a reference to the poem "Lady Clara Vere de Vere" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which Edith quotes at one point during the film.
  • Not-So-Final Confession: Louis passes the night before his execution writing a full confession to set the record straight about who he killed and why. Minutes after finishing, the news arrives that evidence has turned up exonerating him, and he's not to be executed after all. But then...
  • Oh, Crap!: Louis' reaction when he realizes just what they mean by his "memoirs".
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Ascoyne d'Ascoyne takes his mistress punting, although his intentions are anything but chaste. When he moors his boat to have his way with her, Louis unties it; causing Ascoyne and his mistress to be swept to their deaths over the weir.
  • Pretty in Mink: Sibella and Edith wear some furs, including a huge fox wrap Edith wears at Louis's trial.
  • Prisoner's Last Meal: The jailers are morbidly excited by the prospect of hanging Louis and ask him if he has any special meal requests. Louis sanguinely requests coffee, toast, and Grapes of Luxury, since his "appointment" will be too early in the morning for a proper breakfast.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: "Il mio tesoro intanto" from Mozart's Don Giovanni serves both to introduce the film and as something of a Leitmotif for Louis' mother.
  • Quick Nip: Variant version — Henry d'Ascoyne hides his drinking from his teetotaler wife by keeping it among the chemicals in his photographic darkroom. Surprisingly, he is not offed by Louis putting actual developing fluid in his "developing fluid".
  • Race Lift: The main character in the book was half-Jewish. In the film, he's half-Italian. This was brought about by the "post-war sensitivity about anti-Semitism", and the moral stance of the films produced by Ealing.
  • Repetitive Name: Ascoyne d'Ascoyne.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The death of Admiral Lord Horatio d'Ascoyne is based on the 1893 sinking of HMS Victoria in a collision with another Royal Navy battleship. As in the film, Victoria went to the bottom with the commanding admiral, who had been responsible for the collision, still aboard, and the admiral had even waved off rescue boats at one point.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: With apologies to Longfellow:
    "I shot an arrow into the air.
    She fell to Earth in Berkeley Square."
  • Running Gag: At one point in the movie, someone speaks to Louis about "a matter of some delicacy". Louis remarks in voiceover that whenever someone talks about a matter of some delicacy, they're usually euphemistically referring to a matter of extreme indelicacy. Throughout the rest of the movie, people talk about "matters of some delicacy".
  • Sarcastic Confession: Subverted. Louis thinks he's making a sarcastic confession to Sibella, but she sees through him and files the information away for later use.
  • Shout-Out: After his last-minute reprieve, Louis quotes one of Macheath's lines from The Beggar's Opera, another black comedy with a villain protagonist who gets a last-minute reprieve from hanging.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Unlike the more elaborate murders he concocts for his other targets, Louis disposes of the Reverend Lord Henry d'Ascoyne through the simple expedient of poisoning his wine.
  • Tough Act to Follow: In-universe, Louis' hangman fears the execution will be this and plans to retire immediately afterwards. "After hanging with the silken rope, I'll never be content with hemp".
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance:
    • Alec Guinness plays all of the D'Ascoynes who stand between Louis and the dukedom.
    • In a smaller example, Dennis Price plays both Louis and his opera singer father.
  • Unexpected Successor: Louis is eighth in line for the dukedom.
  • The Vicar: The Reverend Lord Henry.
  • Villain Protagonist: Louis plans to murder eight people, most of whom he's quite friendly withnote  — and you want to see him do it.
  • Villainy Discretion Shot: Used throughout Louis' murderous career.
  • White Sheep: Lord Ascoyne the banker, who kindly employs Louis. When he dies peacefully, Louis is relieved, being less willing to murder him as he had the other more odious or self-important D'Ascoynes.
  • Wicked Cultured: Louis, who shows himself rather more cultivated than the wealthier members of the D'Ascoyne family.
  • Writing About Your Crime: The story is framed as a memoir written by the protagonist in his cell, waiting for his execution.