American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In the years after World War II, there emerged from the Ealing Studios of England a series of comedies so dry and droll, so literate and cynical, that the phrase "Ealing comedy" described them and no others. Many starred Alec Guinness, then in his 30s, so anonymous in appearance that he was told by an early teacher, "you will never make an actor." It was like that until the end of his days; once, while dressed as Hitler for a costume fitting, he stepped outside and failed to raise the eyebrow of a passing policeman. While the other great actors of his generation--Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson--attracted crowds wherever they went, Guinness could, he reported, go to the cinema without ever being asked for his autograph.
If he was unremarkable in person, he played a series of remarkable characters in the movies, each one a newly-minted original. He was shy, stammering Herbert Pocket in "Great Expectations" (1946) and two years later the diabolical Fagin in "Oliver Twist." He blew up "The Bridge On the River Kwai" (1957), was an eccentric painter in "The Horse's Mouth" (1958), a genial colonel in "Tunes of Glory" (1960) and the same year a vacuum-cleaner salesman as "Our Man in Havana." He was a desert prince in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), a Soviet official in "Dr. Zhivago" (1965), an imperturbable Indian doctor in "A Passage to India" (1984) and Cromwell, Disraeli, Father Brown, Scrooge and of course Hitler. Little wonder his autobiography is titledBlessings in Disguise. It is an injustice that he is best remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" movies, which he told me were boring to make because he spent most of his time standing alone in front of a back-projection screen, reciting dialogue.
Consider how unnecessary such special effects were in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), in which Guinness plays eight different members of the same family, of both genders and a six-decade age span, by doing relatively subtle things with makeup, posture and behavior. Because he was nobody he could be anybody, and here he creates characters who are pompous, silly, inconsequential, or even actually nice to Louis. ("I was glad," says the hero of the film about his employer Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, "after all his kindness to me, that I should not have to kill him.")
The film began a classic run of Ealing comedies, which continued with "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Man in the White Suit" (both 1951) and "The Ladykillers" (1955), in which a sweet little old lady buys the story that her new roomers, all crooks, are actually musicians. Their rehearsal sessions are priceless. All of these Ealings were being revived with new prints when I was in London in August 2002. The big screen underlined the quality of the black and white cinematography, which in the case of "Kind Hearts" seems to owe something to "Citizen Kane"--another film that begins at the end and then circles back with narration.