Getting Away With Murder

We’ve been experiencing an early summer in Ireland this week, with hardly a cloud in the sky and temperatures remaining in the late teens throughout. On Thursday, however, I decided to heed Noël Coward’s advice about mad dogs and Englishmen venturing out in the midday sun by taking refuge at the pictures. The venue was The Belltable, Limerick’s main arts centre since 1981. The film was Roger Hamer’s 1949 Ealing classic, Kind Hearts & Coronets, the first of two black and white films to be screened that day. I’m a big fan of the films made by Ealing Studios and have most of them on video or DVD. Kind Hearts is my favourite and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen. It was restored for cinema release in the UK last year and had also been released on DVD nearly a decade ago by the Criterion Collection. I don’t know what version the Belltable used, but the image was brilliant even if it was only in 4:3 format. The film is mainly composed of long- and mid-shots and rarely uses close-ups. This was certainly apt for the theatrical surroundings of the Belltable, and the venue was even more appropriate for the film’s strengths – the script, dialogue and the acting

Kind Hearts & Coronets’ main claim to fame is that Alec Guinness plays eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, taking in a variety of ages, professions and even genders in the process. Guinness certainly brings each of these characters to life but, for me, the standout performance is by Dennis Price as the film’s narrator and main protagonist, Louis Mazzini. The film begins with Louis (who we learn is the Duke of Chalfont) in prison on the eve of his hanging for murder. In a witty voice-over, Louis explains how he got there and we then witness it all in flashback for the next hour and a half. It turns out that Louis’ mother was a member of the D’Ascoyne family who had married an Italian opera singer and was ostracised by her family as a result. His father died from a heart attack upon setting eyes on Louis and his mother raised him in relative poverty. She attempted to make amends with her family, but they continued to shun her. When she is killed in an accident, the D’Ascoynes also turn down Louis’ request to have her buried in the family vault. We learn that Louis is now 11th in line to the Dukedom, as the line of inheritance passed through the women in the family as well as the men. Taking on board the Italian proverb that “revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold”, Louis decides to avenge the treatment of his mother by slowly and methodically wiping out the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and his goal to become the Duke of Chalfont

The major themes of revenge and social class are also present in the film’s subplot: the relationship between Louis and his childhood sweetheart, Sibella (Joan Greenwood). Sibella dispels Louis’ amorous advances because of his working class background and instead decides to marry the wealthier, though less interesting, Lionel, who Louis notes “exhibits the most extraordinary capacity for middle age that I’ve ever encountered in a young man of twenty-four.” This subplot is intertwined nicely with the main plot and both come together near the end to produce a surprising and deliciously ironic ending. Along the way we are treated to some witty dialogue that is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde at his best. From the outset, Louis decides to get to know his prey because, as he says, “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”. Towards the end, he ingratiates his way into the home of the current Duke, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, letting us know where his values lie: “The next morning I went out shooting with Ethelred – or rather, to watch Ethelred shooting; for my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports.” The film contains dozens of these hilarious lines and, while the quality of the picture was excellent, unfortunately the quality of the sound left a lot to be desired. It was certainly loud enough, but I felt it was too harsh and lacked warmth. Still, this is a small complaint to make about a movie that cost nothing to see. It seems that it was the first in the Belltable’s series of Mid-Day Silver Screenings and I certainly look forward to subsequent features

Later that night, the Belltable put on another black and white film. I didn’t make it to this one because I’d already seen it last month on the big screen. As well as lacking colour, this film also features no dialogue – it was this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Film, The Artist. I must admit that I’d been a bit sceptical when I went to see it, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought. It attempts to reproduce the kind of films that were popular in the days before the advent of sound and it certainly achieves this effect. It’s set in Hollywood just as the “talkies” are about to appear and follows the contrasting fortunes of a fading silent movie star with the rapid rise of a young starlet as sound films start to take off. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller both give fine performances as the main stars and make up for the lack of dialogue with their movement and facial expressions. Instead of using the modern device of subtitles to convey the actors’ words on screen, the filmmakers have wisely chosen to remain faithful to the traditions of silent film by using title cards throughout. It’s a simple film and is easy to see why it did so well in Hollywood, though I feel that part of its success may be due to its novelty factor. Nevertheless, it’s well worth watching, particularly for fans of cinema, and perhaps it will get people to check out some more films from that era. Below are half a dozen songs that tie in with the theme of murder in Kind Hearts & Coronets and that of silence in The Artist

World Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Murder – The Lucksmiths

The Words That Maketh Murder – PJ Harvey

Away With Murder – Camera Obscura

If I Could Talk I’d Tell You – The Lemonheads

Can’t Make a Sound – Elliott Smith

Silent Film – Solomon’s Hollow