A serial killer might be the subject of a horror film or the antagonist of a skilled detective. At the very least, we expect him to be an easy and suitable target for fear and outrage. Certainly he should not and cannot be the handsome, witty, attractive center of a comedy.
Tell that to writer-director Robert Hamer and the cast and crew of Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the most insidiously funny and deceptively playful movies ever made. We’re encouraged to enjoy it with the same carefree pleasure we would have with a good meal among close friends. It is a meal that nonetheless provides more than a touch of indigestion, for after a while, we can recognize just how deeply cynical and corrosive Coronets is.
Black comedy is often vicious and at its best, pointedly trenchant. It seldom is executed with the airy insouciance of a graceful, well-honed epigram. As Coronets follows Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) in his murderous, relentless quest to inherit an aristocratic title, the mayhem is treated as a delicious, ever so delightful joke. Far from diluting the critique, that acerbic, delicately reserved polish makes the satire all the more biting.
The objects of Louis’s malevolence are his relations in the D’Ascoyne family. Because his mother married “beneath” her, the D’Ascoynes do not acknowledge Louis exists. With the exception of his mother, all of the D’Ascoynes are portrayed by Alec Guinness, in a justly famous tour de force of comic impersonation. While some of the humor derives from the callous stupidity of the D’Ascoynes (my favorite moment occurs when Louis dispatches his suffragette cousin by shooting down her hot-air balloon with a bow and arrow), Hamer astutely allows at least two of them to be both likable and kind. He thereby maintains a carefully calculated objectivity toward Louis himself. Indeed, Louis may be one of the most deeply ambiguous protagonists ever to drive a movie. His anger at his inferior social position inspires sympathy. His indefatigable poise makes him supremely attractive. You do not have to cite his murders, however, to note his occasional moments of brutality and cruelty. It is just one of those slips, in fact, that lays the groundwork for the film’s devilishly open ending.
That distance and wry understatement give Coronets its satirical power. For all Louis’s wit, refinement and charm and the surface appeal of the Victorian period recreation, the film depicts a world dominated by self-interest, snobbery, hypocrisy and complacency. Anything is excusable so long as one acts properly. Kind Hearts and Coronets damns not so much with faint praise as by showing only the best of its corrupt world, without once slipping into easy moralizing. It needs neither to preach nor to shout. The filmmakers recognize that if, as Louis reminds us, “revenge is a dish best enjoyed cold,” satire is a method best performed tongue in cheek.