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The Boston Phoenix Alec Guinness

1914 - 2000

By Chris Fujiwara

AUGUST 21, 2000:  Sir Alec Guinness, who died on August 5, at age 86, certainly belongs -- with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Michael Redgrave -- on the short list of great knighted actors who were stars both on stage and in films. Of them all, Guinness seems the most completely a film actor. The film performances of Gielgud and Richardson -- tours-de-force as they were -- often gave the impression of wonderful pieces of work imported into the medium of film but belonging to a different craft. Olivier and Redgrave had good runs as leading men in films, but as they matured into character parts, Redgrave disappeared on the margins of insignificance, and Olivier became an acting special effect, often used to startle or terrify but rarely integrated into the mood and rhythm of a film.

Guinness made himself at home in movies in a way that the others, perhaps, never sought to do. It's not obvious how he did this, but then nothing about Guinness's acting is obvious. His screen presence lets us infer little of his personality, except that he was probably a witty, intelligent, gentle, and modest man -- an impression confirmed by his 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, and by the two published volumes of his later diaries. He scored his first major success on film by thoroughly disguising himself behind monstrous eyebrows, nose, and beard as Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). In his later career he was renowned for his versatility, as if there were no substance that Alec Guinness was. But in all his roles a few consistent qualities came through: on the one hand, a deceptive unremarkability that sometimes let him hide in a crowd and sometimes let him embody the revenge of the common man; on the other hand, the ability to dominate by withdrawing, watching, reacting, and commenting slyly.

Guinness's best period in films was between 1949 and 1960. In Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a true British masterpiece, he plays eight members of a noble family marked for death by a dark-horse heir (the excellent Dennis Price). The film is built in a way that does not prod us into admiring his virtuosity. Except for a brief long shot using doubles, no two Guinnesses are on screen at any time, so that the technical trickery usually a factor in films with actors in multiple roles doesn't rear its head here. The key to Guinness's presence in Kind Hearts is that he isn't used as a gimmick: the film works without our having to account for, or even necessarily to be aware of, the fact that he's playing eight parts.

Kind Hearts was the first of several films for Ealing Studios in which Guinness helped define British comedy as an internationally viable genre. Some of these films now seem disappointing, but his performances in them remain gems of understatement and humor. In Charles Crichton's diverting caper comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), his mild baby face is even blurrier than usual; his miming of soft, sidling servility before the boss at work is exquisite, and in the film's more hectic moments, he finds an original way to register excitement by pointing with a crooked elbow. Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit (1951) keeps him too long off screen but does bring him on amusingly for a modestly gleeful jog dance before full-length mirrors, resplendent in his soil-repelling suit. In these films, and as a slow, spiritual, peering Father Brown in Hamer's underrated The Detective (1954), he reveals a dancer's awareness of space and shape.

The gang leader in Mackendrick's droll The Ladykillers (1955) is one of Guinness's most memorable grotesques. He won a Best Actor Oscar for playing an obsessed British colonel in a Japanese POW camp in Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): his fine, sensitive face makes the character human and explainable, and his physical work -- struggling to walk and hold his body straight after days spent folded inside a box -- is exact and strong. Perhaps his best performance from this period is his roaring, growling, croaking artist in Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth (1958), an endearingly slack film that's galvanized by his lunatic inspiration and stubbornness in going his own way. Playing a disreputable genius, Guinness for once lets himself dominate a film; he also wrote the script, from Joyce Cary's novel.

His later projects had their ups and downs; if The Horse's Mouth represented a peak of personal involvement for him, Star Wars (1977) and its first two sequels, with Guinness as the sage Obi-Wan Kenobi, marked the nadir (he was delightfully explicit, in interviews, about his contempt for the films and their audience). But his acting always reflected intelligence. Guinness's virtues were those of the cinema -- above all of the cinema of the '50s, which permitted them to glow most warmly and brightly.

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