Monday, 15 April 2013

The Horse's Mouth (1958)

Everyone with a love of cinema has seen at least one performance from the great Alec Guinness that has stuck with them through the years. Whether it's his work with Ealing, his fantastic turn in The Bridge On The River Kwai or just being that certain wise gentleman in a small movie called Star Wars, the chances are that Mr. Guinness has made a favourable impression on almost every movie-goer of my age (37, just now) and older. He was, and in the movies that hold his memory forever he still IS, a class act. The Horse's Mouth features yet another great performance from the man, but it's also the only movie that he ever wrote the screenplay for (adapting the novel by Joyce Cary) and, by all accounts, he did a pretty good job of it.

Guinness plays Gulley Jimson, a man that viewers first see coming out of prison. He's a chancer and an unfriendly sort, feeling very hard done by and angry at the world around him. A world that owes him. As it turns out, he has a point. Gulley is also an artist and a very good one, but his desire to keep creating great art often leads him into situations that perversely end with destruction. He just can't stop himself, even when things start to look up. There's no self-control there, no filter, the art is all that matters. Kay Walsh plays a stern woman trying to help him get what he deserves, Renee Houston is an ex who still holds a candle for him, Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh are two potential patrons and Michael Gough has some fun as a fellow artist afflicted with the same short-sighted way of muddling through life.

It takes a while to warm to The Horse's Mouth (Guinness uses quite an accent for his character and he's not the most pleasant person to spend time with during the first few scenes) but do stick with it and it ends up as quite a rewarding experience. Once the main theme becomes apparent - that of the driven artist constantly striving to create another masterpiece even while destroying other things around him - it's an absolute delight. THAT'S when viewers are able to identify, and connect, with the Gulley and almost see everything onscreen as he sees it.

Apparently, when Guinness developed the screenplay he decided to drop some other aspects of the novel and focus on the plight of the artist, something which really gives the film a unique and fascinating centre. Having not read the source novel, I can't say whether or not this improves the material, but it certainly feels like a good decision for the cinematic adaptation.

Director Ronald Neame captures everything unobtrusively enough, but that's not to dismiss his work. He somehow sets everything up in a way that seems to capture the very essence of both creation and destruction, this is a film with all of the elements gelling together almost perfectly.

The acting from all concerned is fantastic. Guinness is never less than the brilliance that's expected from him, Walsh and Houston are both wonderful, Gough is great and Mike Morgan is very sweet as a young lad who looks up to Gulley and wants him to stay out of trouble so that he can just continue to make great art. Coote and Turleigh aren't on screen for very long, but do fine with the time they have, and every minor character gets a fleeting moment to shine.

If it wasn't for that unsteady opening, this would be closer to a perfect film. As it is, it's a very good one. A very good one indeed, do yourself a favour and seek it out. It's hugely entertaining, but it's also art.


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