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In A Classic English Comedy, A Sly Parable About Anti-Semitism

“England,” wrote George Orwell, “is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly […] A family with the wrong members in control — that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.” That was in February 1941, a few months after the air raids started. In 1949, a few years after they’d subsided, the director Robert Hamer came as near as anyone to describing England in a shot. The shot comes approximately 41 minutes into “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Following Orwell, it takes the hereditary as its central metaphor.

Seven members of the D’Ascoyne family have gathered at the family vault for the funeral of Henry D’Ascoyne, who’s been roasted in a mysterious photography accident. Together, the living D’Ascoynes form something like a cross-section of elite English mediocrity, a who’s who of know-nothings in banking, grassroots politics, the military, and the clergy. They’re ridiculous, all the more so because they’re oblivious to their own ridiculousness: stone-faced, warped by privilege, they’re halfway in the vault already. Like many a pompous patrician family with a thing for pure blood, the D’Ascoynes look suspiciously alike — as well they might, since they’re all played by Alec Guinness.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” — the finest and funniest of many excellent comedies produced by Ealing Studios in the 40s and 50s, currently showing at Film Forum in New York in honor of its platinum anniversary—is the rare work of art that gets less dated with age. Compared with most films of the era, its musical score is minimal. The editing is brusquely literal. The director, Robert Hamer, makes no great effort to convince us to like the main character. Instead, he assumes our interest with such unshakeable (aristocratic?) confidence we almost have to give it to him. When his film premiered in 1949, single parenthood was an unspeakable scandal, a black immigrant family in London would have been lucky to find lodgings outside of the slums, and homosexuality was punishable by chemical castration. Stupid, senescent English tradition was still in full swing. The older “Kind Hearts and Coronets” gets, the more absurd its caricature of Edwardian society seems, and the greater our appetite for comeuppance grows.

Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, ninth in line to the Dukedom of Chalfont, grows up in poverty after his mother is thrown out of the family for marrying beneath her station. Following her death, he sets out to murder the eight D’Ascoynes ahead of him and regain the noble status of which he was cheated. A series of Agatha Christie-ish kills follows, with a dollop of the Marx Brothers: there’s a booby-trapped jar of caviar, a snifter-full of poison, and one delightful set piece involving a hot air balloon and a bow and arrow. Like Margaret Dumont bantering with Groucho in “Duck Soup,” the D’Ascoyne family never realizes it’s being preyed upon, keeps rewarding Louis with clueless politeness. Eventually he’s arrested, as in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” for the one murder he didn’t commit.

It’s an open question how much of this would play without Dennis Price in the lead role. Louis kills, if his narration can be trusted, for revenge, but most of the time he’s so calm you struggle to imagine much of a fire in his belly. “Revenge,” Price assures us, twenty years before “Star Trek,” “is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.” Even so, you wonder if it’s lust for status, more than anything else, that motivates this character, who is, after all, a worthier-seeming aristocrat than any of the film’s actual aristocrats. These contradictions melt together in Price’s face — the gentle, childlike roundness of his cheeks, jazzed up by his curling lips and black, Mephistophelean eyebrows. His Louis acts selfishly and altruistically, because his victims deserve what’s coming to them and also because he savors murder the way most people savor sex. Price never got a film part remotely this good again, though he played Jeeves, (another commoner who’s nobler than the nobles he serves) in the 1960s BBC adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories. An alcoholic and compulsive gambler, he never made it to 60.

Getting the part of Louis Mazzini right was an uncommonly delicate undertaking for the “Kind Hearts” team. “In Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” the 1907 Roy Horniman novel on which the film is based, the killer-protagonist is half-Jewish. Horniman was (pretty damn near unmistakably, I hasten to add) satirizing racist tropes rather than simply perpetuating them. But a Semitic antihero wouldn’t have flown in 1949, partly because of the legacy of the Holocaust, partly because Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing Studios, was the son of Jewish Latvian immigrants, and especially because another Alec Guinness film, the 1948 version of Oliver Twist, had run into trouble for anti-Semitism (banned in Israel, protested in Germany, not shown in America until 1951).

The screenwriters, John Dighton and Robert Hamer, opted for an uncharacteristically gutless solution. Switching the protagonist from half-Jewish to half-Italian, they minimized the book’s racial dimensions and doubled down on class — an expedient little maneuver that, paradoxically, helped ensure the film’s longevity. You can still make out little glints of the book’s Jewish themes in “Kind Hearts” — e.g., Louis’s oddly metaphorical observation that shop assistants like him are considered “an inferior race who never emerged from the other side of the counter.” By the film’s midpoint, he’s already rich and successful, but his sometimes-lover continues to regard him as ridiculous, perpetually inferior, out of his depth. Her reaction makes little sense in the class context the film insists on, considerably more once Jewishness is thrown back in the mix. Horniman: “A Semitic appearance, however superior … rouses instinctive antagonism.”

These points notwithstanding, it is striking how much of what’s great about “Kind Hearts” is already present in Israel Rank. From the book’s first page:

There is an old saying, “Murder will out.” I am really unable to see why this should be so. At any rate, it is a statement impossible of proof, and one which must always remain a matter of opinion. Because certain clumsy criminals have placed themselves in full view of that dull dog, the Law, we are asked to believe that crime is invariably awkward. The logic is not very obvious.

It’s all here: tart, foregrounded narration, smirking understatement, tossed-off aphorizing. Horniman’s protagonist, like Price’s, seems to stand ever-so-slightly outside his society, staring down on its moral code with polite confusion—and this politeness makes him seem like a better gentleman than any of the gentlemen he meets, even when he’s busy murdering them. The best lines in Hamer’s film exist in more or less the same comic register: Louis is crestfallen to learn that one of his rivals has birthed twins, but then reassures us, “Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo.”

Horniman was influential but not, it’s worth stressing, a pioneer. His debt to Oscar Wilde was enormous, even though I’m unaware of the playwright ever urging his audiences to root for a mass-murderer. More Wildean than Victorian England ever permitted Wilde to be, “Israel Rank” takes as its premise one of Wilde’s best lines—“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die”—and then pushes this premise to its inevitable conclusion. (“The Importance of Being Ruthless?” “An Ideal Victim?”).

Horniman does this with such obvious glee that someone was bound to get upset sooner or later. In the late aughts there was a flurry of interest in “Israel Rank,” long out of print, and had things played out a little differently Horniman’s oeuvre might have enjoyed a Stefan Zweig-esque renaissance. Instead, “Israel Rank” was greeted with criticism of a wishy-washy and decidedly contemporary kind. The book wasn’t exactly anti-Semitic—instead, and even more damningly, it was problematic. Simon Heffer, writing for The Spectator in 2008, allowed that Horniman was a master satirist of Edwardian society but worried that the author was “enjoying his character’s consciousness of the Jew-baiting to which he is subject rather more than good taste should allow: and by the end of the book the evidence of the cold-bloodedness with which Israel has committed murder … all seem to conform to the stereotype that the anti-Semite has of the Jew. Israel Rank is not exactly a sympathetic figure.”

Well … no, not exactly sympathetic, unless you’re John Wayne Gacy. You could almost believe that Heffer was trying to be ironic in homage to Horniman, instead of cluelessly restating the obvious (the words “good taste” are, I’m afraid, the giveaway). Hilariously, it never occurs to this illustrious man of letters that conforming to anti-Semitic stereotypes can be an excellent way of mocking them, by the same logic that inspires so many persecuted groups to embrace the slurs society hurls at them. No matter. The day black comedy ceases to be problematic is the day it ceases to be black — so really, it’s for criticasters like Heffer that humorists like Horniman do what they do.

A hundred years ago the economist Thorstein Veblen tried to explain, without recourse to conspiracy theory or pseudoscience, why Jews have been disproportionately successful in almost every field they’ve entered. His hypothesis went something like this: Jews, because their culture is decidedly not the dominant one in the Western world, are natural skeptics; instead of accepting the social status quo as an unalterable birthright, they are uniquely predisposed to judge the world dispassionately and bend it to their needs.

I have no way of knowing if this hypothesis is correct, though I have to imagine the truth is more complicated (there’s no shortage of other non-hegemonic groups to which the same analysis applies rather less convincingly — why Jews, then?). Whether or not Veblen was right, he’d hit on one of 20th century fiction’s central themes: outsiderness is a blessing disguised as a curse; the person who grows up at arm’s length from civilization, whether named Meursault, Bigger Thomas, Augie March, or Jay Gatsby, is fated to see civilization’s true face and confront what others take for granted. Twelve years before Veblen delivered his paper, Horniman had already built a great novel around this theme — in one of Israel Rank’s few straight-faced asides, he tells us, “because the laws of compensation are inevitable, it is … antagonism that makes the Jew what he is. His powers of resistance are automatically developed by it, and it encourages his virility. The greater the odds a man has to fight the greater his ultimate skill of fence.”

Success, then, is the Jew’s revenge on the society that sneers at him. Success is also, by the same logic, society’s revenge on the Jew. The Jewish outsider-hero succeeds through a combination of talent and drive his gentile rivals can barely imagine, let alone match. His perspective is his power; because he sees all of society in one piece, undistorted by superstition, he knows exactly where to aim for and how to get there. His rendition of a good, hardworking citizen puts the real thing to shame. Once he achieves his goals — once he has nothing further to compete for, that is — he becomes the fat, complacent insider he’d always hated, and which he’d been sickly obsessed with all along. This is exactly what is about to happen, but doesn’t, at the end of “Israel Rank.”

For all their bitterness, nobody could mistake Horniman’s novel, or Hamer’s film, for radical social critique. They poke fun at aristocrats, not the aristocracy. The nightmare of English society, as they see it, isn’t that there are people born into obscene wealth and power; it’s that some of the people who do enjoy these privileges are insufferable bores, while suave gentlemen like Louis have to work hard to achieve what is rightfully theirs. It’s entirely possible, I have no doubt, for Prince Harry to watch “Kind Hearts” without feeling any kind of threat to his authority, much as finance bros once genuflected to “Wall Street” and the porn industry still embraces “Boogie Nights.” Another Orwell quote, this one from his essay on Dickens, seems relevant: “In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling.”

Nevertheless, the problem remains: what happens when the wannabe noble becomes an actual nobleman? In the book, Israel Rank ends up getting off scot-free, thanks to an ex-lover who graciously takes the fall, then her own life. There’s nothing left for him but fatherhood, cognac, and a slow plunge into irrelevance, and so Horniman ends, charitably, just as Israel stops being interesting and (according to Israel’s definition, at least) just as he’s stopped being Jewish.

In the final minute of “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” by contrast, things get interesting all over again. Louis is cleared of all charges, only to realize that he’s left a signed confession (the same document, presumably, we’ve experienced as Price’s narration for the last 90 minutes) in his jail cell, where it awaits publication. This is utterly cheap, of course, the product of 1940s censorship norms demanding that no bad guy go unpunished lest “criminal activity and antisocial behavior” be encouraged. But it may also be the only bowdlerized ending that improves upon the original. Louis Mazzini, no longer explicitly Jewish but still very much a Jewish outsider in a gentile world, has made it all the way to the top of English society, only to come crashing spectacularly down. Would we continue to care about him if he didn’t?

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