The directors of the films Kind Hearts and Coronets and Se7en make use of the seven deadly sins and the parallel order that opposes them, which are the seven holy virtues: chastity, diligence, temperance, kindness, humility, patience, and charity…
Earlier in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets (Ealing Studios, 1949), as the protagonist Louis Mazzini (played by Dennis Price) confronts the difficulties in executing his murderous scheme against the seven D’Ascoyne heirs who hinder his ascension to the Dukedom of Chalfont, he briefly repines on the difficulty of it all, claiming, “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.” The statement captures the irony within the film because the same family estrangement that impairs Louis, socially and economically, also impairs his capacity to murder them. However, whether Louis mesmerizes or repulses us, the same mixture of wit, nonchalance, and irony elevates Louis above the banality of the common villain and indicates that two different character-types inhabit him. This is indicative of a dominate feature of Kind Hearts as a whole, which is constructed upon a number of what Umberto Eco calls ‘archetypal frames.’
Eco, in “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” claimed that in order for a movie to become a cult classic, it had to “provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared experience.” Such movies have, according to Eco, an “archetypical appeal.” Eco further claims that with a cult classic, the viewers should be able to “break, dislocate, unhinge” the film so that they can remember it “only in parts” (Lodge and Wood 462-3). A similar analysis can be made with Kind Hearts.
Director Robert Hamer chose to loosely base his film on the 1907 (now out of print) novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. While not as fixed in popular studies as Casablanca, Kind Hearts was named in Time magazine’s top 100 list of movies and was voted #6 in the BFI’s list of top 100 British films. The magazine Total Film in 2000 ranked the film at #25 in a poll of readers, and Total Film ranked it #7 in 2004. Kind Hearts is obviously less known than the film Eco uses as his paradigm, but its continuing popularity suggests the film’s own distinction as a ‘cult classic’ with a distinct mastery of archetypical uses and appeals that rivals Casablanca.
Eight members of Louis’ family on his mother’s side, the D’Ascoynes, stand between him and the dukedom: The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young Ascoyne (son of The Banker), Young Henry (a photographer), and Lady Agatha (the militant suffragette of the family)—all played by Alec Guinness. Louis is ostracized from the D’Ascoynes because his mother eloped with an Italian opera singer beneath her social class. The film begins with Louis awaiting his execution and composing his memoirs, which are the storyline of the film. Louis confesses and recounts how he arranged to murder seven of the heirs—his employer, The Banker, the only D’Ascoyne he does not plot to kill—and how he succeeded in killing six of them.
Aside from his lone conspiracy, Louis finds himself in a love triangle between two women, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood friend and current paramour, and the higher-minded and more sophisticated Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of Henry, one of Louis’ victims. In the subplot, Louis chooses Edith which makes Sibella jealous, so when her husband Lionel commits suicide, Sibella hides his note and so Louis is arrested, tried, and convicted of murdering Lionel, which is when we realize Louis is awaiting his execution not for the D’Ascoynes, but for a murder of which he is innocent. Awaiting his execution for the crime he did not commit, Louis pens his memoirs wryly confessing to his crimes, admitting that he was even willing to consider murdering Edith for Sibella if the latter produced Lionel’s suicide note. Finally, Sibella ‘discovers’ the note and Louis is released, but before he gets far a publisher approaches him to ask for the right to publish his memoirs, which suddenly reminds Louis that his manuscript is still in his prison cell, written in his own hand, available to any loitering prison guard.
In his analysis of Warner Brother’s production of Casablanca, Eco claims that, “Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time” (Lodge and Wood 465). Eco identifies what he calls ‘frames’ or situations that are easily identifiable to connoisseurs of film or observers of popular culture. The first type of frame, which Eco refers to as ‘common frames,’ are ‘stereotyped situations’ in films that the audience identifies as normal, individual experiences: for example, a car ride in the country or a dance in a club. The second, ‘intertextual frames,’ are stereotyped situations that the viewer recognizes through an established textual/cinematic history: the speakeasy with a big band, for example, or jazz, gambling, a black piano player. Eco claims, “When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they… have already worked elsewhere” (Lodge and Wood 464).
Kind Hearts and Coronets is carefully laced with intertextual framing, beginning with the title taken from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lady Clara Vere de Vere”: “Kind hearts are more than coronets,/ And simple faith than Norman blood” (55-6). The poem’s narrator chides Lady Clara for pride, using the rebuff that “A simple maiden in her flower/ Is worth a hundred coats-of-arms,” but the poem is essentially an indictment of reckless members of the British ruling class:
I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,
You pine among your halls and towers;
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these (57-64).
The dilemma for the producers of Kind Hearts was this: For their film to be a successful ‘black comedy,’ they had to be sure the audience would like Louis to a certain point, so it became necessary to tarnish his victims. However, the filmmakers scarcely had time to provide a sinister history for seven D’Ascoynes, but such intertextual framing as between Kind Hearts and “Lady Clara…” offers a ready-made explanation that the audience can accept implicitly: Louis is a conspiring murderer, but he is also an avenger, which fits with the storyline of his and his mother’s ostracism. With the “Lady Clara…” intertextual association, Louis evolves into a populist hero in the British imagination of the 1940s—a sort of Nietzschean superman who can surmount values that are outdated and superimposed. The tactic is so successful and convincing, that Louis’ appeal might rise to a level of euhemerism were it not interposed with his cruelty to Sibella, Lionel, and, most of all, Edith.
Even if a large majority of Kind Hearts’ audience was unfamiliar with “Lady Clara…,” the image of English aristocrats who, as Edith puts it in the film, “care too much of the privileges of the nobility, and too little of its responsibilities” is impressed in the popular and political British imagination. In the same decade as the film, George Orwell in his political treatise “The Lion and the Unicorn” criticizes the ruling classes of England for not earlier recognizing the threat of Nazi aggression. Orwell wrote of the British aristocracy:
What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in (Orwell 37).
Considering the historical movements of the Levelers, Chartists, and English socialists, Tennyson and Orwell are voices of gentler criticism towards the aristocracy. Of course, these intertextual sentiments are still with us, continued in the British comedies and dramas of the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, this British cultural archetype has the “preestablished and frequently reappearing narrative situation” that Eco insists creates a “vague feeling of a déjà vu” that is important in creating a popular film because “everybody yearns to see again” these things, which adds to a film’s box office success and its ascension to cult popularity (Lodge and Wood 464).
Aside from the intertextual interplay with Louis as murder and social avenger, Kind Hearts is filled with as many archetypes as Eco enumerates in Casablanca. Louis fits the archetypes of murderer and wrongly condemned man, selfless hero and ruthless Machiavellian, lover and adulterer, someone who refuses to harm animals, loving son, the dispossessed pauper and cultured aristocrat, the powerless outcast and powerful insider; he is both socially shameless and overly refined. Most impressive of all, Louis is an incredible actor, impersonating a vacationing playboy, a photography aficionado, a supporter of the suffragette movement, and an Anglican bishop. Louis’ utility and adaptability make him fill other common roles such as a clerk in a women’s department store, a partner in a major bank, and later as the 10th Duke of Chalfont. Sibella also fills several archetypes including the innocent child, girlish lover, distressed engaged woman, dark paramour, la femme fatale, the black widow, and ultimately, la belle dame sans merci.
Nevertheless, the most remarkable intertextual junction in Kind Hearts are the doomed D’Ascoynes, particularly the seven that Louis plans to eliminate. In an interview about The Godfather trilogy, director Francis Ford Coppola discussed the issues of violence in film and how details can make the cinematic murder less commonplace. With the exception of The Admiral, Louis comes up with creative ways to assassinate each member of the D’Ascoyne family. Similar to Coppola, the writers of Kind Hearts alleviated these murders by using intertextual framing to uniquely and entertainingly construct Louis’s murders: the deaths of the D’Ascoynes are framed by the ‘seven deadly sins,’ which, as outlined by Pope Gregory I, are (1) lust, (2) sloth, (3) gluttony, (4) envy, (5) pride, (6) wrath, and (7) greed, though this ordering is not Gregory’s but the film’s because it parallels the order of the D’Ascoynes’ deaths and corresponds with the unscrupulousness of their own private lives.
I. Young Ascoyne takes a woman on a river punt to a secret spot where they secure their boat and begin their lovers’ escapade; however, their chosen spot is near a reach—a level portion of a canal between locks—so when Louis is able to swim beneath their punt and unmoor it, they float away through the weir gates and crash to their deaths.
II. Young Henry is interested in no other pursuit than photography, which also serves a second purpose in concealing his love of alcohol from his prudent wife, Edith—Henry has sherry in a bottle labeled “Developer” and whisky as “Fixing Solution,” all to enjoy when he is ‘developing’ his pictures. Louis replaces the paraffin in Henry’s dark room lamp with petrol which causes the room, along with Henry, to disappear in smoke.
III. The Parson—the “fool of the family” and a “boring old ass”—is hardly a pastoral ascetic, but a heavy drinker of port who mocks the notion of ‘abstinence,’ even though his doctor warns him that so much alcohol is detrimental to his health; he dies at the dinner table after his fourth glass of port, which Louis had poisoned.
IV. Lady Agatha is a radical, violent advocate for the suffragette movement who spends much of her time in jail; on her final release, she gets into a hot air balloon in order to toss leaflets across London, and Louis uses an act of archery to bring her down.
V. Louis is unable to murder The Admiral who rarely leaves his vessel, but Louis is rid of him anyway when The Admiral stubbornly maneuvers his warship into a collision with another vessel and refuses to evacuate, becoming the sole casualty by remaining on the bridge and holding a firm salute as the waters rise all around him. Though not a murder victim, The Admiral’s demise is within the intertextual relationship.
VI. The General, an old commander who continually enjoys retelling how he annihilated enemy forces in the Boer War, dies from eating explosive caviar.
VII. The Duke, the final victim and ultimate target on the family tree, invites Louis to a shoot on the Chalfont grounds when he is caught in one of his own “man traps” designed to catch poachers who steal his game: Louis shoots him with his own rifle to make the murder appear an accident.
How similar is Louis to his D’Ascoyne relatives? Casual viewers might be quick to point out that Louis is guilty of some of the same sins as them: pride, wrath, and lust. However, such a comparison is tenuous because any proof that would show perfect symmetry with the seven doomed D’Ascoynes would have to be somewhat forced. For example, while Louis wants the dukedom, to argue that he is driven by greed (as the Duke is) is difficult because the wistful images of Louis’ mother and his desire to avenge her estrangement from the family would easily muddle such a claim.
While a parallel between Louis and the D’Ascoynes does not exist within the framework of the seven deadly sins, perhaps another parallel can be found in Henri Bergson’s theory of laughter. Bergson claims that many comedic situations are caused by the complementary forces of tension and elasticity:
If these two forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent, we have sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they are lacking in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency, every variety of insanity. Finally, if they are lacking in the character, we have cases of the gravest inadaptability to social life, which are the sources of misery and at times the causes of crime. (Bergson, II par 8)
While Louis shows incredible elasticity when he is murdering the D’Ascoyne heirs, he is elsewhere completely inelastic. For example, Louis’ cruelty to Sibella, where he dissembles his feelings for her while courting Edith, his cruelty to her in the final apartment scene, and his refusal to help the her desperate husband, Lionel, because of an old grudge, all point to Louis deeper nature which is intractable regardless of the circumstances, and is the trademark he shares with his D’Ascoyne relatives.
More egregious is Louis’s willingness to murder Edith if Sibella will produce the suicide note that will exonerate him in the case of Lionel’s death. Up until this point, Louis’s murders can be understood (if not condoned) under the motive of avenging his mother’s estrangement and removing reckless and unproductive members of society. However, no such justification works for Edith, but Louis’s clasp onto the dukedom becomes so intractable that he does not remember his notion of justice, and is willing to perform a worse wrong to Edith, who is perhaps the character most like his mother in the film. Finally, Louis’s unbendable desire for revenge is his downfall when, believing that Sibella will not produce Lionel’s suicide note, he pens his memoirs confessing to his murders; not only does he wreck the image of Sibella as a respectable Edwardian woman, but he implicates her in a conspiracy to murder Edith. Not only are his fears misplaced, but his desire for revenge against Sibella is his final undoing. To use Orwell’s words, Louis is most like the D’Ascoynes because he is ‘unteachable’ and holds an ‘infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing.’
Having dealt with the parallel between Louis and the D’Ascoynes, I will return to the seven deadly sins. The intertextual connection with the sins raises some contrasts between Kind Hearts and David Fincher’s film Se7en (New Line Productions, 1995), where American social decay and cultural libertarianism—represented by the unnamed city where the film is set—is confronted with its opposite, which is moral authoritarianism embodied in the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) who uses the sins as a basis for his sacerdotal murders; detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) are caught in the middle of these extremes, searching for a balance.
While this inevitable collision in Se7en between the two extreme, opposite and corresponding ideologies is the centerpiece of the plot, the use of the seven sins in Kind Hearts solicits a different response from the audience: the reactions of laughter towards D’Ascoynes and transformed into horror at the murders Somerset and Mills uncover, which might suggest a ‘them’ (the social elite) versus ‘us’ (the general public) contrast between how viewers see themselves in relation to the victims. Dealing with the plots, the actual sins in Se7en are written out (in often gruesome ways) near the victims because, unlike in Kind Hearts, the sins are needed for more than their intertextual usefulness. Furthermore, while Se7en has an ambiance that is grimy, adulterated, and malevolent, Kind Hearts often seems salubrious and gentle: the palaces of the D’Ascoynes and scenes of middleclass London are starkly contrasted with the filth of the unnamed city in Se7en. Furthermore, while Se7en uses the deadly sins to frame a film that is ominous and full of ritualistic murder, Kind Hearts—though containing its own moments of deep-seated pathos—is witty, sveltely humorous, and occasionally lilting, using the same intertextual material for laughter and amusement.
Eco discusses what he calls ‘magic intertextual frames’ where “we are interested in finding those frames that not only are recognizable by the audience as belonging to a sort of ancestral intertextual tradition but that also display a particular fascination” (Lodge and Wood 464). As I stated earlier, Eco argues that these are “preestablished and frequently reappearing,” and that this ‘magic’ is essential to the creation of a cult classic. The cross-genre use of the ‘seven deadly sins’ is the most important element that has helped Kind Hearts maintain its enduring, if small, cult following.
However, as is illustrated with this odd relationship between the comedic Kind Hearts and the ominous Se7en, the same intertextual frame simultaneously has the ability to create a sound structure for two very different films. The question still remains, how is this possible?
As suggested above, the reaction of the audience, in part, might have something to do with how the audience identifies with the victims. However, a second explanation is suggested in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World where he deduced that “Shakespeare learned something else essential to his art from the morality plays; he learned that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is surprisingly porous” (Greenblatt 34). Greenblatt indicates how frames, the organic foundation of drama, work to create the intertextual magic when he addresses one of the biographical mysteries of Shakespearean drama: “[Shakespeare] is someone who had A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet on his desk (and in his imagination) at the same moment, and who perceived that the joyous laughter of the one could be almost effortlessly transformed into the tears of the other” (Greenblatt 298).
Even with such frames as deadly sins or moral taboos, what seems effortless to Shakespeare or the directors of Kind Hearts and Se7en is the existence of an ‘other,’ which makes the use of the seven deadly sins so expedient to both films. The creation of a system is defined by what it excludes or leaves outside, and in this case, ‘the other’ is the parallel order that opposes the seven sins, which are the seven holy virtues: chastity, diligence, temperance, kindness, humility, patience, and charity. Whether we use a Freudian view of the sins—that the existence of good and evil is based on collective human experience—or a Christian view—C.S. Lewis’ claim that evil is spoiled goodness and would otherwise have no need of the demarcation of an ‘other’ were it not for ‘original sin’—it is clear that this connection between the excluded and the excluder still exists in the popular mind, the one remaining the shadowy twin throughout, so it is often difficult to consider the other without its opposite.
Perhaps it is the numinous presence of this twin, obscured but still visible behind its burlier counterpart, that makes the switch from comedy to horror, from laughter to tears, so effortless, so enjoyable, so almost unnoticeable.
This essay was delivered at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque in 2010.
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Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. 16 October 2009.
Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather II. Perfs. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Robert De Nero. Paramount, 1974. VHS, 1997.
Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2008.
Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
Kind Hearts and Coronets. Dir. Robert Hamer. Perfs. Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, and Alec Guinness. Ealing Studios, 1949. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002.
Orwell, George. Why I Write. New York: Penguin Books—Great Ideas, 2005.
Se7en. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. McGinley, and Kevin Spacey. New Line Productions, 1995. DVD, 2004.
Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady Clara Vere de Vere.” 04 March 2009.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “The End of the World” (1851-53) by John Martin, courtesy of Wikipedia.