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Force of One

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

Sir Alec Guinness played characters older than himself for so long that when he died on August 5, the age listed in his obituaries came as a jolt to many fans. Only 86? No way. Surely he was in his early fifties, at the very least, back in 1949, when he played all those parts in Kind Hearts and Coronets. And he had to be pushing 65 in 1958 when he starred in The Horse's Mouth. Hell, everybody knows he was at least 100 when he appeared so Forcefully in the first Star Wars trilogy. Right?

Not quite. Guinness, whose 66-year career encompassed everything from Hamlet to Obi-Wan Kenobi, was born in 1914. He came of age in humble circumstances, and relied on handouts from friends while working his way through school. Years later he would theorize about the secret of his success: He developed his prodigious versatility as an actor as an unintended consequence of his life-long desire to reinvent himself. He was an illegitimate child who never knew his father. In fact, he didn't even know the surname on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14. Maybe, the great actor admitted, he was able to submerge himself so completely into different characters because, throughout most of his youth, he dearly wanted to be somebody -- anybody -- else.

You could argue, of course, that genius also had something to do with it.

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.

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A two-week program featuring six movies from the late Sir Alec Guinness's filmography
(713)639-7531
The Glassell School of Art's Freed Auditorium, 5101 Montrose

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It might be asking too much of any retrospective to fully convey the enormous diversity of the late, great actor's oeuvre. Wisely, Museum of Fine Arts film curator Marian Luntz has chosen to maintain a tight focus in The Genius of Guinness, the two-week program set to begin Friday, September 8, in the Glassell School of Art's Freed Auditorium. The MFA series -- planned, it should be noted, before Guinness's death -- concentrates on the movies of a ten-year span, 1949-1958, most of which were produced by the legendary Ealing Studio of London.

Established and operated by Sir Michael Balcon, Ealing specialized in comedies characterized by their droll wit, understated satire and straight-faced absurdity. (Decades after the studio's closing, critics continue to use the term "Ealing comedy" as a kind of shorthand to describe Local Hero, Saving Grace and other contemporary comedies in the Ealing spirit.) Ealing productions such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob made Guinness an international star. But then again, Guinness did as much for these movies as they did for him.


Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): Strictly speaking, Guinness isn't the lead in this elegantly cold-blooded black comedy. Dennis Price smoothly plays the nominal protagonist, Louis Mazzini, a remorselessly resourceful young man whose late mother was disowned by her aristocratic family when she married beneath herself. Inconsolably bitter -- and despite his lowly social status, acutely snobbish -- Louis plots to methodically murder eight relatives who stand in line ahead of him to inherit a dukedom. A half-century ago, moviegoers were genuinely shocked by this blithely amoral approach to class-conscious upward mobility. And even now, there's something unsettling about the savagery that lurks just beneath the film's brittle wit. Which, of course, makes the funny business all that much funnier. Price is surprisingly sympathetic in his haughty insouciance, and he gets terrific support from Joan Greenwood as Louis's petulant (and married) mistress and Valerie Hobson as a high-minded widow who falls in love with her late husband's executioner. But Guinness is the main reason for the movie's enduring appeal; he plays all eight members of the doomed D'Ascoyne family: a cruel duke, an adulterous snob, an amateur photographer, a blustery general, a vain naval officer (who thoughtfully dies without any help from Louis), an elderly banker, a boring clergyman and, most memorably, a matronly suffragette. Guinness's versatility is nothing short of remarkable. Better still, the multiple casting is oddly comforting: It's difficult to think of Louis as a heartless fiend when his "victim" repeatedly returns to life. Warning: There has been serious talk of a possible remake with Robin Williams in Guinness's role(s). Be afraid. Be very afraid. (7:30 p.m. Friday, September 8)


The Ladykillers (1956): Try to imagine a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Dr. Caligari, and you're ready for Guinness's weirdly stylish turn as a would-be criminal mastermind in this mischievously sardonic farce. Outfitted with enormous teeth -- even bigger than Matt Dillon's choppers in There's Something About Mary -- Guinness plays Professor Marcus, a vaguely creepy fellow who presents himself as an amateur musician when he rents an upstairs room in the shabbily genteel home of Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a seemingly harmless old lady. Marcus hopes to use the room, and the old lady, while conducting a heist with a motley crew of co-conspirators. (Chief among the cohorts: Peter Sellers as a chubby-faced teddy boy and Herbert Lom, who would later play straight man to Sellers's Inspector Clouseau, as an excitable tough guy.) But the tables are turned -- repeatedly, hilariously -- as the improbably resilient Ms. Wilberforce sparks a chain reaction of comic mayhem. The Ladykillers may start out as a conventional comedy about dumb crooks and cute geezers, but the humor turns progressively harsher and darker as the thieves fall out and the body count rises. Trivia note: After directing this movie and The Man in the White Suit, Alexander Mackendrick moved to America to make the deliciously cynical Sweet Smell of Success. (7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 9)


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)


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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