Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 2, 2014
Today on TCM, all day, the movies of Alec Guinness are playing, as we celebrate the actor’s 100th birthday. I’ll cut the recommendations short: you can’t go wrong. Really, you can’t when it involves Alec Guinness, at least, not in my opinion. But this day is important to me for more than just the celebration of a great actor, it’s important to me because, somehow, Alec Guinness informed most of my early study of cinema and he remains a figure the drums up instant nostalgia for my youthful enthusiasm for learning all I could about the movies.
As much as Guinness would hate to hear it, and he truly grew to hate hearing it, Star Wars was pretty important to me in his canon. But not in the way he would have thought (I have his autobiography, and he came to regard Star Wars with contempt mixed with gratitude for the financial well-being it brought to him). No, I was one of the few youngsters going to see Star Wars who knew Alec Guinness going in. I had been studying movies in any way I could since Jaws kind of set me off on a path of cinematic excitement that has never subsided. And back in 1975 and 1976, the only real way to study cinema was to go to the library to read film books and watch whatever old movies were being shown on television. For whatever reason, comedies starring Alec Guinness played on my local PBS station all the time. They played so often they might as well have changed the name of the station to The Ealing Studios Channel.
The first Alec Guinness movie I ever saw, and sadly it’s not a part of today’s schedule, was The Man in the White Suit. It remains one of my favorites, though that term is essentially meaningless here as the large majority of movies I have seen with Alec Guinness have become personal favorites. I should also make clear that when I say “I saw it” I actually didn’t, at first. My mother was watching it in the front room of the house on a Saturday afternoon and I walked in and saw Alec Guinness standing in a tattered suit, defeated and battered. The End. I asked her what the hell that was all about and she gave me a basic run down, enough to intrigue me immensely and make me want to see it from the start. I got the chance when the station ran it again the next day (my local PBS station – sorry, I mean, The Ealing Studios Channel – did that a lot). For me, it was a great experience, blending social commentary with comedy and science fiction. And despite all the talents involved in the making of the movie, it was Alec Guinness that became the movie to me.
In short order, I began to watch all the Ealing Studios movies and picked and chose my favorites. At the bottom of the list was Kind Hearts and Coronets. I didn’t find it very appealing upon first viewing and couldn’t figure out why. The reason, I discovered years later when I saw it again with no expectations and realized what a marvelous film it is, was that I was expecting it to be an Alec Guinness movie. Oh sure, he’s the actor who does all the attention grabbing work, playing multiple characters of the same family, showing off his skills at playing varying ages, types and even genders. But the star of the movie is Dennis Price and he wasn’t nearly as captivating for me as Guinness.
At the top of the list, and still standing there, was The Lavender Hill Mob. What a wonderful movie from start to finish (with a momentary appearance of a then unknown Audrey Hepburn right at the end). The movie, directed by Charles Crichton, employs a deceptive flashback, in and of itself revealing in that the deception of it perfectly mirrors the deception of the heroes, Guinness and an always brilliant Stanley Holloway. They’re the bad guys but only according to the law. That is, they use criminal means to make their fortune and retire but we don’t ever root against them. What they do is illegal but they never seem criminal.
It was with this background that I went into Star Wars, the movie my friends and I had seen weeks of commercials for and were excited to see. My friends didn’t know a single actor in the cast. I knew two: Alec Guinness, of course, and Peter Cushing, though I had yet to see a single Hammer film. No, I knew Cushing from At the Earth’s Core which I’d seen the year prior. Soon, I would discover many more bodies of work attesting to the supreme talents of that man as well. For now, it was all about Guinness. I had never seen him in anything but comedy so I thought it might be a little strange. Also, being a stupid kid, I didn’t immediately recognize him thanks to the beard. But once I did, I was amazed at how different he was than he had been before. When the movie was over, I showed my friend’s the encyclopedia entry on the Academy Awards and how Obi-Wan Kenobi had won Best Actor for a movie called The Bridge on the River Kwai. That didn’t impress them (at all) like it impressed me and I realized, as I have been reminded too many times over the course of my life, that most people don’t care anything about a movie or who is in it or who makes it beyond what they see on the screen. They don’t want to discuss it, seek out other movies by the same filmmakers or actors, explore the era of movies surrounding it, nothing. And so, my fascination with Guinness remained a lonely venture.
Once we got cable and TBS, I was able to see many more Guinness works. I watched the George Smiley miniseries, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I watched the old David Lean Dickens adaptations, and all of the old works that had nothing to do with Lean or Ealing but showcased his talents nonetheless. And I finally got to see that Oscar winner of his.
At first, I saw it on commercial television, where it ran about four hours and was reformatted to pan and scan. And you know what? I still loved it even with all those limitations. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. I got to see it on the big screen at the Uptown Cinema in Washington, DC back in 1991. It remains one of the most memorable movie experiences of my life, thanks to the stunning work by Guinness and its startling effect on one audience member. As my friends and I sat in the theater, riveted by the closing moments of the movie, it all became too much for one woman near the front. Keep in mind, this was a massive screen, with complete surround-sound, a full and total movie-going immersion. It was during the climax that it happened. As we watched the train grow nearer its destination, and Guinness reveal the wires that mine the bridge, and William Holden swim desperately across the shallow strait, and the entire plan to destroy the bridge coming perilously close to total failure, a woman in the front of the theater could take it no more. She stood up and yelled at the screen, to Guinness, “What are you doing?! They’re your allies!” Believe it or not, it didn’t ruin the experience for anyone. In some strange way, it made the climax even more powerful. Guinness’ actions just afterwards seemed to indicate he’d heard her. To this day, I’ve never encountered anything like it again. That was the power of Alec Guinness and the mastery of David Lean. Don’t let anyone ever tell you an actor can’t be so convincing that a viewer literally forgets they’re in a movie theater. Alec Guinness had that power. Today, TCM will put it on display.
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