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The Unsung Brilliance Of Dennis Price — Kind Hearts and Coronets At 75

5 min read

Studiocanal

is responsible for some of the most slyly subversive films in the history of cinema. As a studio it dipped its toes in genres like war and horror with Went The Day Well? and Dead Of Night, but it's best remembered today for comedy classics like The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man In The White Suit, and Whisky Galore. Of these, 's stands as the pinnacle of what the studio achieved. A flawless comedy with a streak of black humour, it's the perfect distillation of what makes Ealing Studios great.

Today, the film is largely remembered for the virtuoso performances from Alec Guinness, who plays every member of the D'Ascoyne family, from the elderly banker to the suffragette leader. It's a remarkable achievement, but Guinness' acclaim often comes at the expense of as the murderous protagonist, who has the rather more challenging role of making a mass murderer if not likeable, then at least sympathetic — a feat he accomplishes with characteristic finesse.

As Kind Hearts And Coronets approaches its 75th anniversary in June, now seems an opportune time to examine Price's role in the film's enduring popularity. He plays Louis Mazzini, son of the youngest daughter of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family, who was disowned and shunned for marrying beneath her status. Taking exception to the harsh treatment of his mother at the hands of the family, Louis plans to take revenge, securing his birthright as the 10th Duke of Chalfont by ruthlessly removing every living D'Ascoyne standing in his path.

Price was overlooked from the time of the film's release, with The Observer's CA Lejeune rather cruelly saying that he was “pitifully outclassed every time he comes up against a Guinness character.” However time has been much kinder to his performance. Ever the chameleon, Guinness plays eight characters who by necessity lean towards caricature. He has a limited amount of time to create an indelible impression as each of the D'Ascoynes. By contrast, Price gives a remarkably nuanced performance that anchors the film, establishing the wry tone and creating a character we want to see succeed, despite ourselves. Guinness supplies the comedy, but Price infuses the film with a subversive edge, and it's his morally repugnant yet strangely endearing protagonist that makes the film the blackly comic classic that it is.

Price brings a perfect balance of charm, intelligence and dark humour to the role, making Louis both morally complex and captivating. He's charismatic, charming and owns the screen every time he appears. He exudes an air of smooth, polished aristocracy, with an ease that even surpasses Guinness, as he brings Louis to life with subtle character moments and impeccable deadpan delivery.

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Director Terence Davies once said of Kind Hearts And Coronets: “Without Dennis Price, there wouldn't be a film. He holds it together with the most elegant playing.” It's true, for all the brilliance of Guinness' roles, Price is the glue of the film. He is onscreen for pretty much every scene, and completely inhabits the role of Louis, pitching each character choice perfectly. His quieter, more timid delivery when talking to his mother, the way he visibly tenses when meeting the D'Ascoynes, the look of gentle amusement at the ramblings of the hangman (Miles Malleson) or the barely suppressed desire in his scenes with childhood crush Sibella (). Price infuses every moment with a wit and sophistication that masks his inner callousness. The final trial (where he is tried for the one murder he didn't commit) is a great demonstration of Price's talents. His only line is a repeated “yes” in response to the questions posed by the prosecution, and yet he conveys a wealth of meaning with each reply.

It's not entirely accurate to say that Price is the heart and soul of the film, since there are few films with less of a heart than this one. What makes it an interesting performance today is the utter lack of any moral qualms. He declares in his voiceover that he is not naturally callous, and yet the curl of his lip when dispatching his relatives suggests that he is getting some deep satisfaction out of his revenge. There's no inner conflict as far as the murders go, and his treatment of Sibella (herself presented as something of a femme fatale) is disgraceful. Crucially though, Price never plays Louis as overtly villainous. Despite his poised, stoic performance, there's a warmth to him and a charisma that means we always want him to succeed.

It helps that the film has an immaculate voice-over, that draws you into his mindset from the very first scene. Price's narration, delivered with deadpan precision, is masterful in the way it both explains his motives and plays down his ruthlessness. It's almost a seduction of the audience, as he justifies his murders with the most delightfully acerbic witticisms. Price's gentle, cultivated voice sells these moments perfectly, and he manages to deliver some often quite wordy dialogue as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Lines like “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms” trip off his tongue effortlessly.

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Without Price, the film would undoubtedly still be great, but it's hard to imagine any other actor making the audience complicit in the murders so successfully. We want Louis to complete his mission of murdering his relations, and it's only in the finale that we are forced to examine the fact that we have been rooting for a murderer. It's essential that we like Louis, because aside from the cold-hearted Duke, the D'Ascoynes themselves are all shown to be pretty blameless, and certainly undeserving of their various fates.

Price is a largely forgotten actor today, and it's true that after Kind Hearts And Coronets, he struggled to find a role equally suited to his abilities. Personal problems scuppered his chances at fame, but he slipped easily into the reliable character actor niche, playing a variety of conmen and social climbers in Private's Progress, School For Scoundrels and Theatre Of Blood, while imbuing even the most minor characters with pathos in films like Charley Moon, Victim and The Intruder.

Price himself was incredibly self-effacing about his own abilities, saying “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark.Kind Hearts And Coronets stands as the perfect rebuttal to this. There's an argument to be made that he is the reason that the film has never really aged — it's one of the most sophisticated, witty and charming performances in one of the best British films ever made, and a testament to his talent as one of British cinema's most versatile actors.