“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.”
Sitting Duck’s rating: 7 out of 8 curiously similar looking bluebloods.
Sitting Duck’s review: I’m sure many of you have heard the story about how Alec Guinness once made a kid cry by offering him an autograph but only if he swore to never watch Star Wars again. It’s no secret that he considered the production to be beneath him and resented how it overshadowed the rest of his filmography. Though quite a few of those prior roles aren’t exactly something to be proud of, even if you don’t count the ones involving racial caricatures.
However, we won’t be focusing on any of these early or even mid-career shames. Instead, let’s have a look at one of the comedies he did for Ealing back in the 1940s.
Our story opens with Louis Mazzini, Duke of Chalfont (Dennis Price) sitting in a well-appointed cell awaiting his execution. To while away the time, he pens a record of the events which led to this unfortunate situation. It all started before he was born, when his blueblood mother (Audrey Fildes) eloped with an Italian opera singer, hence his very un-British surname. The rest of the D’Ascoyne family (all of whom are portrayed by Alec Guinness) disapproved and she was cut off. This did not prove to be an issue until her husband died shortly after Louis was born. Requests for monetary aid from the family were ignored, and she found herself scraping by in a life she had never been prepared for. Even so, she made sure Louis received the best education she could afford, as well as drilling him on the D’Ascoyne family tree.
Not that Louis particularly cared. In fact, he remained totally indifferent to his lineage until his mother’s death, when her request to be interred in the D’Ascoyne family vault was denied. But what really ends up motivating him is when he proposes marriage to his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), who responds by laughing in his face. This causes him to vow to murder his way into becoming the Duke of Chalfont, just to show her.
Now this isn’t as harebrained as it might first sound. Unlike with most British peerages, the D’Ascoynes recognize boys born of female members of the family as legitimate potential heirs to the ducal title. The fact that there are only eight D’Ascoynes makes the prospect of murdering them all relatively feasible. But to avoid attracting unwanted attention, they would have to be killed in a manner that appears natural or accidental. For that, he would need to move in the same social circles. Something that is not likely to occur for a draper’s assistant. So he can do little but fantasize about it.
That is until Ascoyne D’Ascoyne visits his place of employment with his mistress, who takes issue with Louis apparently eavesdropping as they talk about their weekend plans. The snarky rejoinder Louis offers does not go over well and Ascoyne demands that his employer fire him on the spot, which is exactly what happens. Knowing of his plans, Louis shadows Ascoyne at the resort he and his mistress visit that weekend, waiting for a chance to kill him. He gets his opportunity when Ascoyne and his mistress go out in a boat and nap in a secluded area. Spotting a posted notice about a nearby dam and the periodic opening of its lock, Louis carefully unmoors their boat. A gentle push and they’re off to plummet to their deaths, with no one able to tell that it was anything but an accident. The first killing is always the hardest, and this wasn’t hard at all. If he plays his cards right, Louis is guaranteed to be the next Duke of Chalfont.
As you might have gathered from the plot summary, this comedy is of the dark variety. Especially when compared to most of the other comedies Ealing was cranking out at the time. With its snarky portrayal of the blueblood society of Edwardian England, it’s easy to imagine it having been written by Oscar Wilde. As is often the case with dark comedies, the laughs it provokes are more likely to be sniggers. Though there are other instances where the laughs are of the nervous variety. Especially memorable are the circumstances which lead to him being slated for the hangman’s noose. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say that it’s a real doozy.
Of course, much of the film works thanks to the primary actors. In what was the only leading role of his career, Dennis Price gives a wonderfully understated performance as Louis. Though the nature of his plight initially makes him sympathetic, his eventual descent into pettiness and vindictiveness robs him of this. It’s especially notable as regards his dysfunctional relationship with Sibella. Meanwhile, Alec Guinness manages to give each of the D’Ascoynes a distinctive personality without accidentally crossing any of them over.
If there’s one issue I have, it’s how the script will occasionally get a bit too impressed with its own cleverness. Granted, it is a frequently clever screenplay. However, I can’t in good conscience give it full marks in the face of such self-indulgence.
- The film title comes from the poem “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The relevant lines go, “Kind hearts are more than coronets/And simple faith than Norman blood.”
- It was adapted from a novel entitled Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. One of the key differences is that in the book, the protagonist’s mother had eloped with a Jew.
- The song that is performed in the opening scene is “Il mio tesoro” (My Treasure) from Don Giovanni.
- Originally Guinness was only going to portray four different characters. After he got a chance to read the script, he asked, “Why not make it eight?” And they did.
- The bathtub special effects used in Admiral D’Ascoyne’s death aren’t what you would call impressive.
- Watch carefully, and you might see a young Sean Connery among the spectators during the murder trial.
- The “eeny meeny miney moe” rhyme sure was different back then.
- It is reputed that Mike Nichols had considered doing a remake featuring Will Smith in the Dennis Price role and Robin Williams in the Alec Guinness roles. In what might be considered proof that a merciful god looks out for humanity, nothing came of it.