Force of One

The late Sir Alec Guinness was a powerhouse long before Obi-Wan Kenobi

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): A whimsical caper comedy with a touch of magic and a sprinkling of melancholy, The Lavender Hill Mob finds Guinness in one of his very best roles. As Mr. Holland, a mousy, middle-aged Bank of England employee whose innocuous manner is a brilliant disguise for his criminal intent, Guinness eloquently expresses the dreamy daredevil that lurks in the heart of every anonymous wage slave. With the help of a souvenir manufacturer (Stanley Holloway) and a couple of small-time crooks (veteran British character actors Sidney James and Alfie Bass), Holland swipes a gold bullion shipment, then smuggles the booty to France in the form of miniature Eiffel Towers. The humor is mostly low-key and character-driven under Charles Crichton's direction. At the end, though, there's a dandy high-speed car chase that's fresher and funnier than many similar scenes in more recent comedies. Pay close attention during the opening scene -- yes, that really is a young Audrey Hepburn who briefly dallies with Guinness. (9:30 p.m. Saturday, September 9)

Dennis Price (right) is the nominal star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but Alec Guinness, who played eight different characters, is the reason for the film's endearing appeal.
Museum of Fine Arts
Dennis Price (right) is the nominal star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but Alec Guinness, who played eight different characters, is the reason for the film's endearing appeal.


A two-week program featuring six movies from the late Sir Alec Guinness's filmography
The Glassell School of Art's Freed Auditorium, 5101 Montrose

The Horse's Mouth (1958): A year after he earned an Oscar for his complex and commanding performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guinness received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Screenplay category for writing The Horse's Mouth, a shaggy-dog comedy based on the novel by Joyce Cary. Not surprisingly, Guinness gave himself a terrific lead role: Gulley Jimson, an aggressively iconoclastic and frequently insufferable artist whose dubious genius is overshadowed by his talent for infuriating friends, patrons, ex-lovers and total strangers. (This cranky, grungy reprobate is loosely based on Dylan Thomas, the notorious poet Guinness would later portray to great acclaim on London and New York stages.) Call it a portrait of the artist as a dirty old man, and you won't be far off the mark. Guinness chews up the scenery with atypical relish, strolling from one misadventure to the next while spewing insults and cooing blandishments in the same growly, gravelly tone of voice. Evidently neither Guinness nor director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure) could come up with a satisfying conclusion, so they merely provided an arbitrary ending. Still, they generate some laughs along the way while covering familiar ground. (7:30 p.m. Friday, September 15)

The Man in the White Suit (1951): By turns lovably pixyish and heedlessly fanatical, chemist Sidney Stratton (Guinness) toils in a variety of menial jobs to gain access to textile-plant laboratories. His dreams come true when he invents a miraculous fabric that can't be soiled or worn out. Dreams, of course, have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares in a world of planned obsolescence. Sidney is too idealistic, and too obsessive, to appreciate the economic ramifications of his breakthrough. But labor and management forces recognize the threat to their livelihood and plot to suppress Sidney's invention. Guinness winningly plays Sidney with a graceful physicality -- note his proud strut in the white suit made from his new fabric -- and an ingenuous vulnerability. Indeed, he generates such sympathy for his dotty character that it's hard not to squirm in your seat when, late in the film, he's chased by a potentially murderous mob. The satire is razor-sharp, and the supporting players -- including Coronets co-star Joan Greenwood as the vixenish daughter of a textile tycoon -- are perfectly cast. (Michael Gough, the flamboyant sculptor in The Horse's Mouth and, more recently, the ancient butler in the Batman movies, plays Greenwood's fiancé.) In the end, though, Guinness's engaging portrayal of a not-entirely-innocent eccentric is what gives The Man in the White Suit the affecting resonance of a modern-day fable. (7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 16)

The Captain's Paradise (1953): In a self-serving quest for the secret of true happiness, Captain Henry St. James (Guinness) enjoys the best of all possible worlds -- for a few years, at least -- while operating a ferry steamer between Gibraltar and Morocco. On alternating nights, he enjoys cozy domestic bliss with a demure homebody (Celia Johnson) and party-hearty exuberance with a free-spirited spitfire (Yvonne De Carlo). Neither woman knows of the other's existence, thereby enabling the two-timing captain to live two different lives with two very different wives on opposite sides of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately the captain fails to realize that the women really aren't so different after all. As years go by, the homebody tires of boringly bloodless respectability, and the spitfire yearns to spend a few evenings at home. Each wife, he brags to a friend, "has half of the things a man wants." But the joke's on Henry: He's too busy fulfilling his own fantasies to fully satisfy either spouse. Co-written by Alec Coppel -- who also had a hand in the script for Hitchcock's Vertigo, another tale of a self-deluding control freak -- Captain's Paradise is never quite as funny as it should be, even when the wives accidentally meet in a Tangiers shopping bazaar. But director Anthony Kimmins has a knack for deftly underscoring ironies. And Guinness somehow manages to be appealing and amusing, even as he makes the risky choice to play Henry as a selfish lout, not a lovable rascal. The last scene is a bit of a cheat, but never mind: The sly good-bye provides a delightful capper for the MFA retrospective. (9:15 p.m. Saturday, September 16)

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