Sunday, April 10, 2011

#154: The Horse's Mouth

(Ronald Neame, 1958)

There are people who believe The Horse's Mouth is the funniest movie Alec Guinness ever made. Assuming these people have seen the divine Kind Hearts and Coronets, I'm left wondering how this could be possible. The Horse's Mouth is a moderate diversion held together by a spectacular performance. But Guinness rarely gave his films any less, which leaves the film as a minor work in his catalog.

Guinness plays Gulley Jimson, a well-established artiste and all-around lout, dedicated to only his craft and unconcerned with things like caring about other people or being a good person. It's so obvious the film could have been named for a different part of the horse's body that I'm probably far from the first person to make that joke. Watching Guinness be carelessly horrible as he flops his way towards simultaneous ignominy and artistic deification makes for an occasionally entertaining moment but an unpleasant overall experience.

I've talked often on this blog about the question of the sympathetic/likable narrator. Ultimately, I don't think you have to like the person at the center of a movie (or anyone in a movie, for that matter), but I do think if you cannot relate or sympathize, you must at least be interested, intrigued, illuminated, or even just confused by their nature or their arc. Jimson is entirely unlikeable, but worse he is simple and easily understood. His intrusions into other people's homes will put you on edge, but his subsequent actions are neither surprising nor entertaining. He is a good notch below Bodu (who was Saved from Drowning) when it comes to highlighting the humor inherent in class interaction, but we are made to believe he is just as interesting because he is uniquely talented. The work he does (made in real life by John Bratby) is indeed appealing in a wildly unhinged sort of way - something, by the way, kept in mind for the memorably striking cover art of this Criterion release. But it hardly makes the character any more appealing to watch.

Ultimately, I think I was let down by The Horse's Mouth because of the expectations I had going in. The film has the tone of a British comedy, but very few of the jokes. Jimson is a very sad character, obsessed with his work but totally unconvinced of its ability to impact anyone else the way it impacts him, which has left him bitter and drunk even when he's not drinking. A second viewing with this knowledge in mind might change my opinion of the film. For now, I'll continue to take Kind Hearts and Coronets out every time I need my Alec Guinness fix.

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