I knew I recognized this guy who seemed to be playing several different characters in this movie that seemed to be a comedy, but it wasn’t until the credits’d rolled that I Googled it and saw his name’s Alec Guinness (also familiar) and that he’s most famous for a series of British comedies through the 1950’s and ’60s, and for Bridge on the River Kwai, and also (small beans) he’s Obi Wan Kenobi.
Might be forgetting something but I think this is the first really black comedy on the List (it’s hard to tell at first if it’s a black comedy or just British; the lines are thin, the differences gray) and I’m wondering, since the List shows a near-total absence of British noir apart from Carol Reed’s contributions (Odd Man Out and The Third Man): was black comedy Britain’s creative response to the horror of the War? Like did they go for deadpan humor int he way that we in the States went for trenchcoats and duplicitous women?
The movie begins with a handsome dude of royalty sitting up in a prison cell, it’s the eve of his execution, and he’s writing his memoir (i.e. confession) on a sheaf of paper by candlelight. Flashing back, how-it-all-began style, we see that as a younger man he was cheated out of a lofty inheritance on account of his mother’s marriage toa shitty family. So he embarks ona journey of stealthily killing everybody on the family tree who preceeds him to the rank of…something. I forget.
It’s a MacGuffin, whatever.
Kid’s name is Louis (Dennis Price) and the family he’s killing is called D’Ascoyne. He ingratiates himself into their homes or gets drinks with them or kills them from agar (hot air balloon, crossbow) — it’s so fucking dark and strange that, at least for an American who knew nothing of these morbid Ealing comedies, it was hard to tell for the first half hour or so whether this was supposed to be funny or, like, sinister. I’m thinking of Lolita, where te narrator/protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is so literate and inventive and earnest and funny that the horrific shit he’s recounting doesn’t end up sounding awful as a reader gets caught up in the charms of the language.
I ended up sitting through the last couple acts in a kind of euphoria, though, where — having realized belatedly that I was supposed to’ve been laughing this whole time — every joke became twice as resonant, like I was tryna make up for lost laughs.
And now (writing this way after watching the movie as a double feature with Whisky Galore!) I’m thinking of how, in the same way that the unfamiliarity of Asian cinema intimidates me to the point that I’m constantly questioning myself about whether I understand it, is the familiarity of an English sensibility, and its air of refinement, making me overreach and act as though I understand way more than I actually do?
I’m also wondering if Alec Guinness, adopting all varieties of disguise here and embodying characters with such a spectrum of temperaments, was the model for what Michael Myers went on to do with the Austin Powers movies, or Eddie Murphy with Nutty Professor, or (meta here) Jerry Lewis in something like The Ladies Man, where he plays the protagonist Herbert Herbert Hubert, and Herbert’s mother.
Anyway. This movie is the first one to pop up on the List in a while that feels totally new and interesting and off-putting. A charming kinda challenge. I recommend it.