Thursday, 19 December 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1955: Alec Guinness in The Prisoner and The Ladykillers

Alec Guinness did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA, for portraying the Cardinal in The Prisoner.

The Prisoner depicts the interrogation of a Cardinal by a communist regime in attempt to derive a confession of treason from him. The film itself is problematic as it is never as strong as it could be as the process of the interrogation is never given the right detail, it wastes time with an unnecessary romantic subplot, and relies too much on its lead performance.

The first of Guinness's performance is that of his serious minded work as he portrays a Cardinal who finds himself public enemy number one in a new communist regime, even though he allies with them when they fought against the Nazis together. At the beginning of the film Guinness portrays the Cardinal as a man of lordly dignity. He is a quiet yet concise man who speaks clearly and his eyes alone suggest a man of great intelligence. Guinness in the dignity gives the man a certain strength of mind. This is of course something that will be taken away from him for through the course of the film. Guinness in his few early scenes though establishes a man of great strength flawlessly and does his very best to set up the disheartening story of the film where the Cardinal will lose his grace.

The interrogation itself is problematic because it really is not directed with a sure enough hand by Peter Glenville. The interrogation jumps too often without the right clarity in the process itself. The film leaves it to Guinness to show the psychological and physical effects of it without really showing enough of how and why he reaches each point. Guinness is handicapped because it does not feel as though we take this descent with him instead we basically are forced to see updates to his story. This has nothing to do with Guinness's work though which actually mostly overcomes the weaknesses of the film's script and direction with his performance. Guinness's portrayal though no doubt would be far more remarkable if the film was less disjointed.

There are definite holes in degradation of the Cardinal but Guinness is very effective in the portrayal of where we meet him at each time. Guinness is quite moving because we see the man of former dignity reduced into a lesser man by his interrogation. Guinness is not allowed to move to the note but at instantly being there he hits them with great precision. Guinness loses that reserved quality as the Cardinal breaks down into a very sad man who seems to be constantly struggling to stay awake and keep his mind set in the right place. His interrogator (Jack Hawkins) discovers that the Cardinal's weakness is that he hates his less than saintly mother using this to drive him to confession.

The late scenes of the film Guinness makes the situation almost believable, the writing needed to be a little stronger to make them wholly believable, as the Cardinal breaks. Guinness shows the loss of that internal strength well even in the way the film forces him to do it. Guinness is able to realize the change actually as more of a revelation within the Cardinal, as an internal pain that was always there within him. It was not that he was not the dignified man before, but rather Guinness shows that there simply was more to the man that could not be seen when he had been in his earlier position. As a man who has lost his circumstance though Guinness is terrific in revealing this weakness as something forced out by the unavoidable pain caused by his interrogation.

It is compelling to see Guinness go from a restrained man of determination to the emotional mess to at the very man a deeply ashamed man once again regaining his restraint but now without that same dignity and power that he had before. This is a very strong performance by Alec Guinness and it is a shame that the only thing that holds him back is the film itself. There are indications within Guinness's work here that there is a truly great performance waiting to get out. What Alec Guinness manages to do is realizes the brutality of the situation even though film never quite grasps the situation well enough. Where the film fails, Guinness still brings a quiet power in his portrait of a great man whose greatness is sucked out of him by the inhuman treatment of such a regime.
Alec Guinness also did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers.

The Ladykillers is an enjoyable comedy about a group criminals, pretending to musicians, who rent a room from an old lady while they pull a bank job.

Well one can forget about Guinness in The Prisoner when watching Guinness in the film, since Ladykillers is a comedy, and because Guinness goes about making a very peculiar character out of the brain of the operation Professor Marcus. This role harkens back to the way he began his career opposed to the more dramatic work that he delved into more often in his later career. Not too many actors would seem the natural choice for a wacky villain in a comedy as the lead in a harrowing drama, but then again there is only one Alec Guinness. Guinness fits this part just as well as he does in The Prisoner, and when watching this film I did not even think about his performance in the Prisoner once because of his great skill to disappear into his roles.

Guinness is helped far more by this film than in The Prisoner, as Ladykiller succeeds far more in what it is trying to do but as well by giving Guinness a hilarious hairdo and some magnificently absurd teeth. Guinness wears them brilliantly but never let's them do all the work in creating professor Marcus. Supposedly Guinness partially based his performance on Alistair Sim and that is not hard to see the way Guinness contorts his own face to create that ghoulish expression that Sim naturally had. Guinness, one of the masters of ACTING that does not seem like a ACTING, is excellent in turning all these bizarre little attributes into the single figure of Professor Marcus who stands easily as the strangest of the group of five rather odd criminals who plot the crime together.

Alec Guinness plays Professor Marcus as a deviant among deviant. He's a scoundrel without question and his behavior is only reinforced by his look. Guinness goes all in and marks his mark splendidly by doing so. The five men are all given ample screen time actually but Guinness cleverly undercuts them in scenes because of his physical portrayal of Marcus. It is always fun to watch him and he often draws the attention to him because of the he interacts with any given scene. A simple gesture is never simple with Guinness's portrayal of Marcus. There is always an extra something Guinness brings to every scene whether it is the way he slinks up and down the stairs as if he was Count Orlok, or even simply the way he leans back after drawing straws, Guinness always brings something more.

Technically speaking there is not a character arc to Professor Marcus he stays the same throughout, what there is Guinness's creation of him and then simply the exploration of the way Marcus interacts with his associates and proceeds through the plot. Guinness, as he showed earlier in The Lavender Hill Mob, has expert comic timing and knows how to sell any gag for all it's worth. In this case Guinness sells the gag for all their worth with the very entertaining twist of being an untrustworthy criminal mastermind. Guinness has such great glee throughout showing that Marcus absolutely loves proceeding with his plan and I particularly love his expression when it appears he'll be double crossing his partners in crime.

This is a very good performance by Guinness, although perhaps less of challenge than his work in The Prisoner, and not because one is a drama and one is a comedy. This performance is his far more consistent work though. Guinness's work here is all in the conception and Guinness makes one memorable and very funny character with Professor Marcus. Honestly one thing the film could have used is more focus on the oddball Professor, really I could have even gone for seeing one his earlier endeavors in a prequel. Both performances show Guinness's tremendous talent and how great his range truly was. Guinness is just as comfortable as a reserved wise man suffering a terrible fate as he is as a crazed "wise" man who eventually suffers a terrible fate. Hmm perhaps these roles aren't so different after all.


Matt Mustin said...

I hesitate to even ask this, but have you seen the Coen Bros. remake of The Ladykillers?

Louis Morgan said...

No I haven't.

Anonymous said...

Louis, what would you consider as Shakespeare's best play and have you seen Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

I know you don't like to announce the next year until after you do both lead and supporting, but can you tell me in advance so I can prepare some recommendations?

RatedRStar said...

Koook160, why don't you do a spreadsheet or somemat like I do and just put every performance you can think of, so that when Louis gets to the next year you can just copy paste it in the comment box.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: My personal favorites are probably Richard III and Henry V. I think Hamlet is probably his most precise work though.

I have not seen his version, but I'm rather interested in seeing it because of the changes to the story.

Koook160: Well I have not decided on the next year yet actually.