UK / Ealing / 106 minutes / 1949
Writers: Robert Hamer, John Dighton, from the novel Israel Rank by John Horniman / Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe / Producer: Michael Relph / Director: Robert Hamer
Cast: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Arthur Lowe, Hugh Griffith, Clive Morton, John Penrose,
Dennis Price, in his best screen role, plays the son of a duke’s daughter and a penniless Italian singer who died at his birth. He vows to avenge his mother’s treatment by her noble family by eliminating all those who stand between him and the dukedom: a fascinating gallery of victims all played by Alec Guinness; camera trickery was skilfully employed by director Robert Hamer to show no fewer that six different Guinness characters at one time, five of them surrounding Valerie Hobson in family pews in church while the sixth, a dodderingly endearing vicar, preaches from the pulpit.
Guinness’s eight characterisations, however, were not a product of special effects but of what American critic Pauline Kael called “a casting stroke of genius”. The Observer added: “This delightful burlesque of Victorian melodrama takes its gusto from the fact that Alec Guinness, an actor, I need hardly remind you, of part, plays eight of them without flagging… with the ease of a Wimbledon champion at a suburban tennis-tea, and such is his versatility that I was only sorry he didn’t play, at least, every male role in the picture.”
Price, female leads Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, and a superb supporting cast that includes Miles Malleson as a hangman and Arthur Lowe as a reporter from Tit-Bits, could hardly have been better. Hamer had been attracted to the idea “of making a picture which paid no regard whatever to established, although not practised, moral convention” and “of making a film not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language. He succeeded. The film, a comedie noir masterpiece, was the apogee of his short career.