The icy 1940s murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the funniest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen. It just also happens to be one of the driest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen, going down like a tall glass of cold sand. The closest the film comes to approaching the over-the-top slapstick antics we’ve come to expect from comedic filmmaking as a medium is a proto-Klumps gimmick in which British stage legend Alec Guinness plays several broad archetype characters of the same family throughout the film – a vaudevillian artform that later made a mint for actors like Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and (maybe closer to Guinness’s pedigree) Peter Sellers. Everything else is emotionally distant cruelty and callous bitchiness penned by a serial killer mutation of Oscar Wilde. That’s not a comedic tone that’s going to resonate with every viewer, but when it hits the right target it kills.
Dennis Price stars as the callous son of a disgraced noblewoman in the early 1900s. Bitter that he was raised in poverty because his mother married for love instead of land & title, our fey anti-hero schemes to reclaim his rightful place among landed wealthy gentry. He expedites his path back to this birthright like Jet Li in the nü-metal sci-fi thriller The One: murdering everyone ahead of him in line for his familial inheritance of a proper title. The humor of this selfish, greedy mission is in how these absurdly genteel murders are arranged to look like accidents, while our POV serial killer protagonist treats the deaths like domestic chores. The way he looks for “good” news in the Obituaries section of the paper and treats a diagram of his family tree like a hit list is outrageously cold & distanced. This is the kind of movie where the announcement of a murder investigation is described by the police as “a matter of some delicacy.” It’s also narrated as an after-the-fact epistolary memoir, underlining just how much of the humor is rooted in its post-Wilde writing style.
Alec Guinness does make an impression as the killer’s rotating cast of dipshit wealthy family members, whom the audience perversely want to see dead as well. His most popular collaboration with producer Michael Balcon—The Ladykillers—is a much more traditionally humorous farce, however, where his performance(s) is allowed to be more memorably pronounced. If anything, Guinness’s multiple personae in the doomed family line here only underline the multiple personae Price’s sociopathic killer tries on to gain access to the wealthy spaces his victims occupy. Guinness’s wealthy dolts don’t even turn out to be the killer’s ultimate nemesis; that honor belongs to a childhood “love” who shares his ruthless pursuit of money (just with shrewd choices in marriage partners, not murder).
Maybe the key to loving this movie’s frozen, impossibly dry heart lies in sharing that central vice of money envy – so that you get a perverse thrill from watching a working class fop murder his way into a more . . . comfortable living. More likely, it probably just takes an appreciation for the flippantly cruel way that thirst for wealth is written on the page, as that’s where Kind Hearts and Coronets‘s most exquisite artistry & outrageously funny zingers lie.