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The Horse's Mouth

January 29, 2008

I never thought the actor Alec Guinness could be funny. Now that I've seen his 1958 comedy, The Horse's Mouth, I can confirm that he isn't.

One thinks of him in the great tragic roles on stage (albeit that his terrible Hamlet was a cause of great merriment among London critics) or as the bardlike OB1 Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie franchise.

The Horse's Mouth is Guinness taking one of his occasional stabs at comedy and he doesn't do a very good job, though it's an intriguing film. The plot concerns a cantankerous old artist, Gulley Jimson, who lives and paints out of a ramshackle houseboat on the River Thames in London. At the start of the film, Jimson's just been released from a month in jail, though the cause of his being there remains hazy. He's only been inside for a few weeks, but the character's attempts to readjust to life on the outside leads to surreal consequences. When he can't repay the surly owner of the local pub, Mrs. Coker, money he owes her, Coker takes Jimson in hand and makes him attempt to get paintings that were previously stolen and re-sold by his ex-wife back in order to sell them to a pair of millionaires. Arriving at the millionaire's well-appointed home, he sees an empty wall that seems to cry out for a mural. While the millionaires are away on vacation, he lets himself into their house, hocks various expensive baubles at the local pawn shop, buys paints with the proceeds and sets about creating a vast, lurid mural on the theme of feet.

Guinness wrote the script for the film himself, based on a Joyce Cary novel. He's not very funny in the role of Jimson. He's very unkempt and good at doing the crazed artist bit, but his timing falters and he fails to tap into the more surreal side of the story. The strangest (and possibly greatest) thing about the film is how difficult it is throughout to tell the character's age. The combination of the scruffy body and childlike mind is so much part of the character's constitution, that Jimson could be anything between 40 and 70 years old. It's only right near the end of the film that we find out he's in his 60s.

Besides the opportunity to see Guinness flounder in a comic role, the film is also fun for its dank scenes of London in the late 1950s, from the smoky old pubs to the double-decker buses advertising Typhoo Tea. There's a DVD of the film available on NetFlix.


  • Wow, I couldn't possibly disagree more. I'm neither here nor there on The Horse's Mouth aside from a good use of Prokofiev, but I think Guinness is brilliant in his early comedies: The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit, and especially Kind Hearts and Coronets.

    What I've always loved about Guinness is his ability to disappear into a role -- or in the latter case, many roles. I can just see the young Peter Sellers on the set of The Ladykillers studying Guinness's every move for future reference.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 29, 2008 at 8:17 PM  

  • Hi Sam
    It's been years since I last saw Ladykillers. I'll put it on my Netflix queue. Maybe I'll laugh more this time around. And thanks for reminding me about the Prokoviev soundtrack in The Horse's Mouth. I love that music. Lietenant Kije was one of the first orchestral pieces I ever heard. My dad used to play it on our old record player at home all the time. The music very much enhanced the film, I thought. Prokoviev's music is so programmatic. There's a lot of humor in it -- and bitterness too.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 30, 2008 at 8:53 AM  

  • Yeah, what I'd really like to see is the Lieutenant Kije film that Prokofiev actually wrote that music for, but I'm not sure it survives. But it's used in other movies all the time, if not quite as extensively, like in Woody Allen's Love and Death. I actually just watched a movie last week that used a snippet of the music, but I have no idea now what it was. Like I said, it comes up a lot.

    (My dad also used to play that LP a lot when I was a kid. It was a favorite when he was growing up. Go figure.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 30, 2008 at 12:05 PM  

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