This classic – which I watched on the Talking Pictures channel yesterday – passed with flying colours the Rosen test of excellence, namely initially deciding to watch the first few minutes of a film I have seen many times and staying with it right to its end.
It’s known for the eight roles of the D’Ascoyne family played by Alec Guinness including one woman but let us not forget the superb performance of Dennis Price as the suave assassin.
Made in 1949, one year after the inception of the National Health Service and three after the ending of World War Two, it reflected the values of the “New Jerusalem” where the upper class was mocked as pompous, self-serving and cruel and sympathy lies with Dennis Price’s character Mazzini excluded from the family after his mother, a D’Ascoyne, eloped with an Italian singer.
To treat murder as not only rightful revenge but also humourously is daring in any age let alone 1949.
It’s never been remade and I don’t see how it could as it would be difficult to cast anyone like Alec Guinness but also Dennis Price.
Hugh Grant could possibly do it but he is now too old and I can’t think of anyone in the younger generation.
There was an American version with a less ambiguous ending.
The story has a delicious irony as Mazzini accomplishes the various murders successfully but is eventually tried for one he did not commit.
He is conflicted in his involvement with two women played by Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood.
Both were typical of beauties of that era.
After the Wicked Lady – with Margaret Lockwood as a highwaywoman – female roles became more daring and less compliant.
This did not really progress into the Fifties, a period of busty cheeky blondes like Barbara Windsor, Sylvia Sims and Liz Fraser, but come the more emancipated Sixties Julie Christie was playing less stereotypical roles.
Alec Guinness continued to dominate stage and film throughout the 1950s and Dennis Price, who was bisexual and had an affaire with Margaret Lockwood, gave an excellent performance in Victim a film about homosexual blackmail before ending up as Jeeves the butler to Ian Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster in the TV series.
There is double irony as not only did Mazzini assume the D’Ascoyne title as Duke of Chalfont, Price was born Dennistoun John Franklyn Rose-Price, the son of a Brigadier General, and educated at Radley and Worcester College Oxford where he appeared at OUDS with John Gielgud.
Sadly, his career was undermined by alcoholism and gambling.
The future star I spotted was Arthur Lowe, who appears as the reporter right at the end when Mazzini, instead of choosing between his two women, chooses to tell his story to Titbits magazine.
This is a timeless classic and I’m sure I have not seen it for the last time.