British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration

By Ian MacKillop; Neil Sinyard | Go to book overview

The long shadow:
Robert Hamer after Ealing

PHILIP KEMP

LOUIS M AZZINI, SERIAL killer and tenth Duke of Chalfont, emerges from jail, cleared of the murder for which he was about to hang. Waiting for him, along with two attractive rival widows, is a bowler-hatted little man from a popular magazine bidding for his memoirs. `My memoirs?' murmurs Louis, the faintest spasm of panic ruffling his urbanity, and we cut to a pile of pages lying forgotten in the condemned cell: the incriminating manuscript that occupied his supposed last hours on earth.

So ends Robert Hamer's best-known film, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). It's an elegant, teasing sign-off from a movie that has teased us elegantly all through — luring us into complicity with its cool, confidential voice-over, holding us at arm's length with its deadpan irony. The final gag, with an amused shrug, invites us to pick our own ending: Louis triumphant, retrieving his manuscript, poised for glory and prosperity; or Louis disgraced, doomed by his own hand. (For the US version, the Breen Office priggishly demanded an added shot of the memoirs in the hands of the authorities.)

Films have an eerie habit of mirroring the conditions of their own making — and of their makers. Or is it that we can't resist reading such reflections into them, indulging ourselves in the enjoyable shudder of the unwitting premonition? Either way, Kind Hearts' ambiguous close seems to foreshadow the options facing Hamer himself on its completion. His finest film to date, it could have led to a dazzling career. Instead, it marked the high-point before an abrupt and irreversible decline. Apart from Preston Sturges, it's hard to think of another director who has fallen so far so fast.

____________________
I am a freelance writer and film historian based in London, and a regular contributor to Sight and Sound and International Film Guide. I have written various articles on British cinema, and am the author of Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick (Methuen, 1991). For longer than I like to remember, I have been working on a biography of Michael Balcon. A version of this essay, in a slightly different form, appeared in Film Comment 31, 3 (May—June 1995). Philip Kemp

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