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Alec Guinness: A Very Versatile Actor

Updated on July 25, 2011
Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness | Source

Most remember Alec Guinness as the aged Jedi warrior Obi Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy. Or perhaps his Oscar winning performance in “The Bridge over the River Kwai” may come to mind. But of his many performances, his skills as comedy were best shown during his days as the Ealing Studios in London.

Fortunately, for the collectors out there, five of his funniest, most memorable comedies have been gathered together in one set. Of these, I shall describe three of them that I feel show off his considerable talents. Oh, not that there’s anything wrong with “The Man in the White Suit”, a brilliant low-key comedy about a genius who creates an indestructible fabric…or so he thinks. And “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, where Alec is not the lead, but plays eight supporting characters, and in one scene you get to see them all.

Both of those films are wonderful and certainly worthy of a more detailed review, but I will instead limit my comments to three of the films. Let us start with one of my favorites and perhaps his best known comedy from those days;

The Lavender Hill Mob

Alec plays a shy bank clerk who’s in charge of the daily shipment of bullion in an armored car. After seeing the true dullness of his life, he convinces his new neighbor to join him in planning to steal the gold. The plan works perfectly and the even catch a few lucky breaks along the way, so what possibly could go wrong?

Well, everything seems to go wrong of course, but that’s part of the fun. No wonder this film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, while Alec’s performance garnered him an Oscar nomination. There are several, wonderful scenes including the recruitment of two henchmen to assist in the crime, the robbery itself in which Alec’s character has to do some acting while blindfolded. The most impressive scene may be when Alec and his cohort dashing down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower to catch an elevator. A dizzying, wonderful scene that’s as energetic and imaginative as it gets.

“The Lavender Hill Mob” marks the debut of Robert Shaw, though he’s pretty tough to recognize in his tiny part as the chemist who makes an interesting discovery. But most will immediately spot Audrey Hepburn in the beginning of the movie; this was considered her first major film appearance, though she only has a couple of lines.

The Captain's Paradise

Ferry boat captain Henry St. James (Guinness) leads the perfect life. In Gibraltar, he lives comfortably at home with his dull, but devoted wife, Maud. And when his ferry crosses the Mediterranean to Tangiers, he lives on the edge with his exciting wife, Nita. As long as neither woman find out about the other, our dear captain is really living in paradise. But of course, you know this won’t last long.

Far from the shy nebbish he played in “The Lavender Hill Mob”, Guinness is a smooth, cocky operator that’s determined to keep the perfect life he’s created for himself. As good as he is, the picture is almost stolen by his “hot” wife Nita, played with gusto by the very sexy Yvonne De Carlo. Her performance, as well as her sometimes skimpy outfits, plays a perfect counterpart to the slick Guinness.

The highlights are many of course, mostly on the near misses both Maud and Nita have in discovering each other, but one of my favorites is the mambo scene early in the film that works brilliantly. Who would have thought Guinness could dance so well with a trained professional like De Carlo, but it works wonders.

Another wonder is just how this film got produced in the early 1950’s. A bigamist captain in the lead role doesn’t seem like the kind of family friendly, morally correct character that’s usually acceptable during that time. Oh well, they seemed to have gotten away with it and the ending is a true classic.

The Ladykillers

Unlike the off-putting, awkward remake done by the Coen Brothers, the original “Ladykillers” works like gangbusters. Guinness plays the decidedly crooked Professor Marcus, who gathers together four other oddballs and rents a room from a kindly, very elderly lady (Katie Johnson) under the guise of being professional musicians. Of course there real plan is to use the old ladies’ house as cover when they rob a bank. Like in the “Lavender Hill Mob” the robbery goes perfectly, but escaping from the old ladies’ house is quite another matter.

Guinness’ plays his role as sinister as he looks, complete with a nasty overbite. In fact, he looks very similar to another British actor, Alastair Sim, most famous for his portrayal of Scrooge in what’s considered the definitive film version of “A Christmas Carol”.

Fans of the Pink Panther movie series will no doubt recognize Peter Sellers, though his character here is more toned down (he is very effective) and Herbert Lom, who plays a fairly tough mobster type in this film. Sellers does make another contribution as he makes all the sounds of the birds that the old lady keeps in her house.

This is the only color film in the DVD collection, although many scenes are rather dark. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is just what happens to each criminal. A funny, top notch comedy that marked the end of one chapter in Guinness’ career as just two years later he played the lead role in “Bridge Over the River Kwai”.

All of the films listed here are quite enjoyable, very funny and show just what a versatile actor Alec Guinness was.


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