This film is one of the classic Ealing comedies re-released in a handsome digital format. Praising films as ‘top of some category’ is a hostage to fortune, but I feel this is not only one of the finest of British comedies but among the wittiest of films in English-language cinema. One remembers the felicity of the narrator and the dialogue; as with Louis’s congratulation to Lionel on his wedding day; or in the sardonic comment by Louis as the river weir claims its victims.
However, it is not just the verbal wit which delights. There is a marvellous moment as Louis carefully ignores the smoke rising beyond a garden wall, unnoticed by his hostess Edith.
The film is famous for the multiple role-playing by Alex Guinness. This is impressive, but so is the acting of the central triangle, Louis (Dennis Price), Edith (Valerie Hobson) and Sibella. Joan Greenwood in the latter role is one of the most sensuous creations in British cinema. And the supporting cast offer many moments of delightful comedy and satire. Miles Malleson’s hangman is especially enjoyable. Whist Arthur Lowe’s Titbit reporter performs a perfectly timed change in the tone and plot at the film’s conclusion.
Like many great comedies the film is amalgam of laughter and darker currents. Louis pursues a path of revenge with admirable and calculated restraint throughout the film. But in the final confrontation there is real power and the oedipal undercurrent comes into the open. The class-conscious antagonism that is so often smoothed away in British cinema here break through the superficially polite surface.
Once seen this is a film to treasure and to return to with renewed pleasure and the discovery of new subtle allusions. And, like all good films, it needs to be seen on the big screen. There is infinitesimal detail to notice and savour. The slight exaggeration of the landscape and mores of Edwardian England is a constant delight. There is the use of one old nursery rhyme, which would no longer past muster, but I think that can be forgiven.
I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House at the beginning of the Xmas weekend. The following screening was sold out – you can guess, It’s a Wonderful Life. The latter is a fine film but Capra’s seasonal tale is rich in sentiment, rather like the final course of Xmas pudding. Ealing’s film has the astringent taste of old smoky Highland malts, perfectly rounding off the day.
For a first-time viewer I think the wit and panache of the story line will be fresh and gloriously funny. And if you want to consider the complexities of the film then I would recommend Charles Barr’s excellent discusion in Ealing Studios(Studio Vista, 1993).
Directed by Robert Hamer from a screenplay by Hamer and John Dighton. Douglas Slocombe’s black and white cinematography is beautifully done, as is the special effect of the entire D’Ascoyne family (all Alec Guinness). And the Art Direction of William Kellner and the editing of Peter Tanner are perfectly judged. Released by Ealing in June 1949 and running 106 minutes.