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The Criterion Collection presents
All your cousins seem to get killed. I really wouldn't be surprised if you'd murdered them all."
DVD ReviewSir Alec Guinness had appeared in a few films already in 1949, attracting notice for his notorious portrayal of Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist. But he really lit up the screens with his unforgettable portrayal of the entire D'Ascoyne family in this black comedy from the legendary Ealing Studio. One of the best-rgarded of the Ealing films, it still holds up quite well indeed.
Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini, Duke of Chalfont (Dennis Price), is sentenced to hang for murder. His memoirs, presented in the form of flashback, make up the greater part of the picture, telling the tale of how he ended up in such a situation. Briefly, his mother had been a D'Ascoyne, but she and her son were disowned by the family for marrying a poor Italian musician. When her dying wish to be buried in the family vault is denied, Louis determines that he will systematically eliminate the family until the dukedom is his. Since there are eight surviving members of the family (all played by Guinness) who need to be eliminated, he has his work cut out for himself. In the meantime, he falls in love with Eliza (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of the relations, and is simultaneously carrying on with his boyhood love, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a sure recipe for danger if there ever were one.
Guinness is justly famous for his multiple portrayal, though several of the characters are little more than broad caricatures (the admiral and the general, in particular). However, most of the others are finely realized, with a great deal of character conveyed in mere posture and gesture. Indeed, an unknowing viewer might be surprised to find that all these characters were portrayed by a single man. Although Guinness has the tour de force performance, the balance of the cast is excellent as well. Price has a determined vigor fueled by hatred, thinly disguised by gentility and a quiet demeanor. Classic character actors such as Miles Malleson and Hugh Griffith also make brief but memorable appearances. But one of the characters that sticks with me longest is Sebilla; Joan Greenwood's dusky voice combined with her little-girl attitude, barely masking her manipulative vanity and pure mercenary heartlessness, is highly entertaining.
The murders themselves tend to be fairly creative, though one shouldn't confuse Louis Mazzini with The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In keeping with the dry tone of the picture, the homicides tend to be discreet and mostly off-camera. The dialogue is mordant and clever, with a quiet British wit that will probably not sit well with Adam Sandler fans. However, those who appreciate a more subtle humor will find very much indeed to enjoy in this classic that well deserves that label. Deliciously entertaining from beginning to end, leavened with a generous dose of irony. The slightly-longer running time is attributable to the Criterion logo at the beginning.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The transfer is very similar to the earlier Anchor Bay DVD, coming from a fine-grain master (the negative being lost). The picture is very slightly windowboxed throughout, and seems to be somewhat more stable than the earlier DVD. The improvement is fairly nominal on this front, given how good the earlier disc was. Both are quite satisfactory. There's plenty of detail and texture as well as a nice range of greys.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 English mono track suffers from the usual hiss and noise frequently found on older British films. In addition, music is distorted and harshly unpleasant. Dialogue is often difficult to make out; it took me three listens to verify that the hangman (Malleson) made reference to 'hanging a Duke' rather than 'hanging a Jew,' which seemed both gratuitously nasty and out of place. The audio seems somewhat louder than on the Anchor Bay disc, but that doesn't help the clarity at all.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Alternate Endings
Packaging: unknown double keepcase
Layers Switch: 00h:56m:18s
Disc 2 is comprised of two extensive documentary programs. The first is a 1h:15m:32s history of the Ealing Studios with plenty of film clips of rarely-seen pictures, plus interviews with such notables as Joan Greenwood, director Alexander Mackendrick and period footage of producer Michael Balcon. It's produced by the BBC, which is more than a little ironic since it was the BBC that bought the Ealing Studio and put it out of business. The second program is a rare 1977 television interview (1h:08m:25s) with Alec Guinness, as he discusses his career, his fondness for Buster Keaton and Bebe Daniels, the Ealing films and the then-new cult of Star Wars and the weirdness that surrounded his role in that picture. Both programs are interesting and quite worthwhile.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe most notorious Ealing black comedy, given a very attractive transfer, with the extras piled on. Certainly worth the upgrade.
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