Many years ago when I thought I had insomnia — more on that in this week’s episode — I would enjoy the two am showings of classic films on my local PBS. It was there that I was first introduced to basically any Criterion film that I’ve noted was a favorite before we recorded, namely The Third Man, F for Fake, and this week’s offering: Robert Hamer’s pitch black social comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. (It’s also where I first encountered another heavily made-up Alec Guinness in Murder by Death which the Criterion Collection continues to ignore, perhaps for containing Peter Sellers at his most racist.)
I knew nothing about Tunes of Glory before watching it except that Ronald Neame directed it and Alec Guinness stars as a Scotsman.
Since all the Neame films we've seen so far have been delightfully fun and Alec Guinness heavily made up is good for a laugh or a cringe, I'll be honest I was expecting this 1960 film to be a bit of a lark. It is not. It is so not. And it is wonderful.
Alec Guinness first tried to read Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth during World War II, but couldn't bear its stream-of-consciousness narrative. Sometime later his wife impressed upon him to give it another shot and he went on to adapt it into a screenplay. Ronald Neame was brought into direct the resulting film, released in 1958, with Guinness staring as the eccentric artist Gulley Jimson. It's often called his funniest film, which is a pretty tough crowd to beat out. Personally, I'd lean toward Murder by Death or Kind Hearts and Coronets for that honor, but The Horse's Mouth is right up there, and quite a bit more poignant even as a comedy.
There's a lot of good in David Lean's 1948 adaptation of another Dickens classic. Oliver Twist has all the artful design and framing of Great Expectations, and once again Lean manages to trim down the story into a movie people will actually sit through. And Alec Guinness is back! Well, those last two aren't wholly good. Particularly Guinness's Fagin. Oh there is so much wrong with Guinness's Fagin.
This week marks the second David Lean film we've talked about and next week will be a third, which is a good indication that, like the British Film Institute, Criterion considers Lean a pretty important director.
This week it's the first of his adaptations of the work of another British great Charles Dickens and one of the best book to movie adaptations I've ever seen: 1946's Great Expectations. Dickens is verbose, which is a polite way of saying that he was paid by the word, and Lean and his co-adapters masterfully trim the fatty bits down to a, well, lean little sirloin.