Beyond the force

'Alec Guinness at 100' presents epics, capers, and delightful deceptions — but no mind tricks

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM In the 14 years since Sir Alec Guinness' death, his fame has only grown, thanks to the enduring cult of the biggest hit of his long career — a film he famously dubbed "fairy-tale rubbish." Star Wars (1977) made the stage-trained thespian a very rich man. It also meant that he was forever branded as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the minds of every moviegoer born in the post-lightsaber era.

Star Wars is notably absent from "Alex Guinness at 100," a slate of digital restorations (and one archival print) screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center — just down the road from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, as it happens. The series does include the actor's two Best Picture-winning collaborations with director David Lean: 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, in which a heavily eyeliner'd Guinness plays a supporting role; and 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won Best Actor. These films are, obviously, glorious and best seen projected onto a theatrical screen, particularly when they're being offered in sparkling 4K resolution. So if you haven't seen either, this is a great opportunity. But the real attractions of "Alex Guinness at 100" are its lesser-seen selections, including several post-war comedy classics made at London's venerable Ealing Studios.

The earliest among them (and the first film in the series, which begins Sun/17) is Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), made a year after Guinness' turn as Fagin in Lean's adaptation of Oliver Twist. Technically, he's not the star of Hearts — that'd be Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini, whose deeply involved and darkly hilarious explanation of how he became a serial killer unfolds from his elegantly appointed prison cell, where he's penning his memoirs the night before his execution. Born to a poor father and a mother disowned by her aristocratic family, Louis learns he's eighth in line to be the next Duke of Chalfont. Spurred on by a number of factors (revenge for his mother's treatment by her snooty family; his longing for a pretty childhood friend, played by the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood, who won't take him seriously as suitor while he's toiling as a sales clerk), he decides to start takin' down the D'Ascoyne family, one branch of the tree at a time.

Hearts' most enchanting gag is that all of the D'Ascoynes are portrayed by Guinness, who dons wigs, facial hair, costumes, and even drag, but has such a way with characters that he barely requires the enhancements. Some of the heirs are more odious than others, and some of them conveniently pass away before their number comes up, but Louis' victims all meet ghastly-yet-posh ends, like a plunging hot-air balloon (thanks to a carefully-aimed arrow) and an exploding jar of caviar. Throughout, the script is full of zingers ("My principles would not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports," insists the bloodthirsty killer before a hunting excursion), an escalating parade of hats (worn by Greenwood's conniving character), and the thrill of wondering in which guise Guinness will pop up next. In 2013, a Broadway musical based on the same source novel — Ron Horniman's Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, retitled A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder for the stage — won a Tony for Best Musical.

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