Date Night Double Feature #4: Beyond Ben Kenobi

Every year on May 4th, scores of Star Wars fans gather to celebrate their beloved science fiction franchise. Even though the SWCU currently includes 12 films and an animated series (soon to be more), it has always been Lucas’ original Star Wars movie that has served as our anchor in the ever growing sea of its canon. Like a nesting doll, the original film has its own anchor, the root, from which sprung all the mythos of this universe and that root is Obi-wan Kenobi.

Like so many fans, I spent this past May 4th at a viewing party of this original film. As I gazed up at the screen, reliving the moment when Kenobi explained to Luke Skywalker about the Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance and the ways of the Force, I realized Obi-wan Kenobi might be the only exposure many people have ever had to Alec Guinness. Especially younger viewers. This struck me as tragic, since Guinness is an Academy Award winning actor with a brilliant career, spanning some 60 years, portraying characters both on the stage and on the silver screen. He even earned himself the dignity of Knight Bachelor from Elizabeth II for his services to the arts. In light of this, I have decided to dedicate the fourth installment of my double feature series to exploring the work of Alec Guinness. 

Alec Guinness (far right) as Osric, c. 1936-37

In a 1973 interview with film expert Tony Bilbow, Guinness explained how he consciously knew he wanted to be an actor at the age of sixteen, but believed he was one since the age of five or six.  He recalled tales of madly acting out elaborate bedtime stories from his school dormitory bed, even after the other children had fallen asleep. Not knowing how to become an actor, Alec Guinness spent the first years of his adult life working in advertising writing copy, which he felt he was terrible at doing. He described his writing as “everything about with which I knew nothing.” After a failed attempt to gain a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Guinness found his way into the Fay Compton Studio and then went on to work in the London Theater. He made his stage debut at the age of 20 with a role in Libel!.

Alec Guinness had always expressed a preference for stage acting over film, and initially only wanted to accept film roles for characters he had already played on stage. In 1939, he played Herbert Pocket in a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which was a success. In attendance to one of the play’s productions was then film editor David Lean. In 1946, after Alec Guinness returned from serving in the war, now film director David Lean, remembering Guinness’ performance, offered him a role in his film adaptation of the same book. Guinness accepted and ended up developing an ongoing working relationship with Lean. This lead to some of his most critically acclaimed work, including roles in Oliver Twist, Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, in which his portrayal of Col. Nicholson won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1958.

Alec Guinness (left) as Herbert Pocket, c. 1946

Double Feature: Kind Hearts and Coronets & Oliver Twist 

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Although much of his career is associated with the films of David Lean, Alec Guinness’ was also as a comedic actor and had roles in many Ealing Studios’ comedies. Directed by Robert Hamer, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy/revenge take and is one of my favorites in the Ealing catalog.  
Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Prince) is the son of the youngest daughter of the seventh Duke of Chalfont and an Italian opera singer, with whom his mother eloped. Because of this marriage, the Duke of Chalfont, along with the rest of the D'Ascoyne family, disowned Louis and his mother, even refusing her request for interment in the family vault in the event of her death. Outraged, Louis vows to kill all the members of the D’Ascoyne family to become the eighth Duke of Chalfont.

Alec Guinness stars as all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family blocking Louis’ dukedom. Spanning age and gender, the roles include the Duke, the Banker, the Parson, the General, the Admiral, young Ascoyne, young Henry, and Lady Agatha. The comedy writing is a perfect symphony in executing intelligent British wit, akin to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, where every joke feels perfectly timed and placed. Having the same actor play multiple members of a family further supports the comedy writing, as Guinness’ gives each character their own unique qualities while simultaneously all a bit of himself. Much of the joke relies on their portrayal by the same actor. As far as an introduction to Alec Guinness’ acting outside of Star Wars, I feel this is a great place to start. Kind Hearts and Coronets is available on Prime Video.

Guinness as The D'Ascoyne Family, c. 1949

Oliver Twist (1951)

It goes without saying that director David Lean’s contribution to the world of cinema has been monumental. The two-time Academy Award winner for Best Director (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia) has had many of his films added to The Criterion Collection, including Oliver Twist. However, upon its release, the film created controversy in Alec Guinness’ performance of the infamous villain Fagin.

Initially Guinness was not slated for the role, but after some persistence from the actor, Lean awarded it to him. “It’s the only time I’ve ever gone out after a part. I absolutely was determined to play that”, Guinness told Tony Bilbow in 1973. He went on say that he convinced Lean to let him read for the part by saying “people in films are only interested in ‘types’, you’re not interested in people actually trying to act.” It worked and Alec Guinness got the role. The controversy over Fagin seems to be less about Guinness’ performance and more about the makeup and prosthetic nose created by Stewart Freeborn, criticized as exaggerating Jewish features. Ignoring warnings from his production team, the director wanted the character of Fagin to stay true to George Cruikshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel, and directed Freeborn to design the character in that light. As a result, it delayed the film’s release in the US by three years, finally making it to theaters in 1951 by cutting seven minutes from Guinness’ performance.

The Criterion Collection’s restoration of the film includes all of the original scenes. The digital transfer also beautifully sharpens contrasts and shadow play of Guy Green’s expressionistic noir cinematography, painting a grim world for the orphan boy Oliver. The scenes are so convincing in their misery that you can almost feel the dampness of its streets in your own shoes.  The beginning of the film feels a bit slow, with its use of a silent-film-era-style title card. However, as the story progresses and the drama intensifies, Oliver Twist’s climactic ending holds up well for its age. Much of this owed to how Alec Guinness, Robert Newton (Bill Sykes), and Kay Walsh (Nancy) play off each other, and the intensity both Newton and Walsh bring to their own characters. Regardless of how you feel about the role of Fagin, Guinness’ performance is worth a watch. If only for the formation of your own opinion. Oliver Twist is available on Prime Video. 

Alec Guinness'as Fagin, c. 1948

Additional Viewing: The Prisoner (1955)

Recently, Arrow Academy released a remastered Blu-ray of this political drama, which  is another controversial film associated with Alec Guinness. My fellow Movie Sleuth writer Andrew Kotwicki has a full review of it here. I highly recommend both the review and the film. If viewers do not wish to purchase the Blu-ray, the film can also be found on Prime Video

Alec Guinness as The Cardinal (right), c. 1955

-Dawn Stronski