Based on the novel 'Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Crimina' by Ron Horniman, the film, directed by Robert Hamer, is one of the famed Ealing Studio films and probably remembered as the film were Alec Guinness plays several characters as part of the same family. He in fact plays 8 of them. Not to take this fact away from the great actor, the film is much more than this novelty. It was labelled as a black comedy and after reading only a very brief description, I wondered how this would be. The key to the film's success is that everyone is very matter of fact and, yes, very British. Not only were all the characters amusing in small ways, but the dialogue and the story created a very serious but funny story. I laughed out loud (happens less and less these days) at some moments in the film.
The story takes place, mostly through flashback as the 10th Duke of Charlfont writes out his memoir and relates how he happened to be in prison awaiting execution. Louis Mazzini, son of a Italian opera singer Father and aristocrat Mother, rises from rags to respectable businessman and then to Duke. After his Father dies, Mazzini's Mother is disowned by her wealthy family, the D'Ascoynes and is reduced to working class but always hopes for the best for her son. She tries contacting her family but they refuse her and when she is on her deathbed asking to be buried with her family, again she is refused. Mazzini swears revenge on his family who have ignored his existence and treated his Mother terribly. Mazzini works his way up in the small world first as a draper in a small shop then moving on to a department store. He also starts murdering each family member. Each family member is also one less person in the way of him becoming the next Duke. He even starts working for the family at a bank and soon becomes partner. Throughout these endeavors he manages to be rejected by a woman he loves, then fall in love with one of the dead family members' wives, while also have secret rendezvous with the first woman who married someone else. Mazzini will stop at nothing to achieve his goal and avenge his Mother. But (SPOILER) when the married woman becomes jealous she pins her husbands suicides on Mazzini as murder. This is how he ends up in prison. But she blackmails him and hints she knows of the other murders. She wants to be the Duchess, hinting that she'll save him if he agrees to kill his new wife. The story ends of a marvelous cliffhanger. As Mazzini is saved at the last minute, he leaves his memoir in his cell and only remembers it when a newspaper comes to collect the manuscript. (SPOILER)
My first impression of the film was the story seemed quite familiar, wealthy woman falls for man below her class and is promptly exiled from the family when she needs them most, son seeks revenge, changes from being humble poor boy to part wealthy and successful cad and harsh romantic. The elements are all there, right down to rejecting the woman who rejected him when he was poor. I can safely say that the story is quite different, exciting and peaceful at the same time. With excitement of revenge and several different murders as excitement, the character development as intrigue and the peaceful exteriors of the locations and the actors expressions just make this film a rare delight.
Another element, that I should address, is the multiple role playing. Alec Guinness playing all members of the D'Ascoyne family, 8 in total but Dennis Price also plays both Louis Mazzini and Mazzini Sr. Usually used in comedy or drama if it involves twins, but here used as a family connection. Concerning the D'Ascoyne family, each member in the credits is describes by age, occupation or gender; Ethelred "the Duke", Lord Ascoyne "the Banker", Reverend Lord Henry "the Parson", General Lord Rufus "the General", Admiral Lord Horatio "the Admiral", Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne. Each character created by Guinness is so cleverly different from the last, sometimes you have to do a double take to see that it is actually Guinness. Thought of as a gimmick for the film and not all vital for the story but I wonder if the film would have made such an impression or been memorable if Guinness hadn't played all 8 characters. I like to think I would have regardless but the added strange choice does appeal to me more.
It is thankfully 'one of those films' that is so unbelievably British that it could never be successfully be remade by USA or any other country in fact. Imagine if American remade 'Amelie'? Think how terrible that would be as it is so French. Another classic British film comes to mind 'The Ladykillers'. No matter how much I love the Coen Brothers, their reworking of that film was so gad damn awful, it just shows that even the skilled cannot remake a classic. Especially if its an Ealing Studios film.
I really enjoyed this film and wished I had seen a better copy. Mine was free from a Newspaper years ago. I think a remastered copy would do the film justice. A brilliant classic film that I believe has and will stand the test of time.
As I was very late with April's pick, I will do two, so expect another Blind Spot post later this month.
To see where it all started and for an excellent insight to film, have a look at The Matinee and have a look HERE for more Blind Spot posts from other bloggers.