The Alec Guinness Collection (DVD)

The Alec Guinness Collection (DVD)

When he died two years ago, Alec Guinness had spent two decades fending off pesky admirers who knew him as the Jedi sage Obi-Wan Kenobi, a role he held in disdain, at one point describing George Lucas' writing as "mumbo jumbo." The actor was famous for his ability to disappear into any part, so the fact that he became so strongly identified with only one is a bit of irony worthy of a different sort of Guinness film. Except possibly for his six collaborations with director David Lean, no area of Guinness' movie career demonstrated that skill better than the comedies he made for the London-based Ealing Studios. And none of those films capture that skill better than 1949's Kind Hearts And Coronets, one of the five movies included in a new DVD collection. Adapted from a novel by Roy Horniman, Kind Hearts ostensibly stars Dennis Price, who drolly plays an outcast heir to nobility who works his way back into the family by murdering the relatives who stand in his way. In a tour-de-force performance, Guinness plays Price's would-be victims—all eight of them, from a doddering parson to a window-smashing suffragette. Conceivably, someone wandering in after the credits might not even notice. An able makeup department contributed to the camouflage, but there's more than wigs and powder working here. For even the smallest part, Guinness inhabits his character, and his subtle mannerisms give the impression of a whole life. Though it's a film-stealing turn, Guinness isn't a scene-stealing actor. He never calls attention to his craft, instead concealing his art in his character. At once gentle, sophisticated, and wicked, Hearts was cast from the Ealing mold and led to other memorable collaborations. In the still-relevant 1951 Alexander Mackendrick-directed satire The Man In The White Suit, Guinness plays an unprepossessing eccentric whose invention of an indestructible, stain-resistant fabric unexpectedly threatens everyone around him. Shy again in Charles Crichton's lively The Lavender Hill Mob (also 1951), he becomes a man whose predictability allows him to perpetrate an almost perfect crime. Guinness earned his first Oscar nomination in the process, and though his performance may not immediately announce itself as his best, it's certainly one of his most representative, a thoroughly recognizable character of unseen depths and unexpected capabilities. For his final Ealing project, Guinness reunited with Mackendrick for 1955's The Ladykillers, a brisk caper comedy about a gang of crooks and the little old lady who repeatedly foils their plans. Playing a figure of comic malevolence not far from a cross-town Hammer vampire, Guinness dons repulsive false teeth that do a lot of the acting for him as he commands a pack whose ranks include Peter Sellers. The box set includes all of the above and the not-so-timeless, non-Ealing bigamy comedy The Captain's Paradise, in which Guinness romances future Munster Yvonne De Carlo, proving that even the best actor needs good material.

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