This is possibly one of the finest black comedies ever created, produced by the British film industry during one of its most productive eras. At its core, it’s basically a revenge movie but as with most movies I cover, it’s much more than that. The wonderful Alec Guinness plays eight different characters including the main character and every member of the family ahead of him in the line for the Dukedom which he craves, from old men to young men, to even women! To say that this is a remarkable bit of acting would put it mildly as it shows his remarkable flexibility as the actor most people only know as Ben Kenobi from Star Wars.
I always enjoy movies with narration as they often add depth and make simple scenes far more weighted with meaning. This movie features a wonderful sardonic narration of events from the perspective of the condemned man, Louis Mazzin who rather interestingly is condemned to hang for a murder he didn’t commit. He writes his autobiography of growing up, his first love Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his life in genteel poverty in mid-late 19th century London suburbs, to his first jobs, to getting to know his targets after his mother is killed by a tram she couldn’t see because she couldn’t afford new glasses and was refused internment into the family tomb. This introduces us to various characters and the various aristocratic types which the various family members inhabit.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white with a wonderful amount of contrast, offering lovely detail. It’s largely shot with mid to long shots, featuring gorgeous old English places (the big family house was Leeds Castle in Kent), as well as a lovely look at how the1940s imagined Victorian/Edwardian London to look like with the help of an Ealing stage and a
few gifted actors. It has noticeably good set dressing like many older movies as each distinct character has a room or an area which is reflective of their character, such as a photography enthusiast has a dark room in a shed where he hides alcohol from his wife who is a great believer in temperance. These are all typical if rather interesting Victorian characters, making it an extremely watchable movie and one that is frequently featured in lists of great films. It one of the best Ealing comedies and extremely dark but presented in a very light hearted way, which helps make you sympathise with the main character who is a sociopath. It has one my favourite endings of any movie, where everything comes together in a lovely way which for me makes this movie one of my absolute favourite movies.
Review by Harry Riedl