A recent rewatch of The Ladykillers led to a first watch of Ronald Neame’s Alec Guinness vehicle, The Horse’s Mouth. To say the famous actor had comedic chops is an understatement. His turns in most things-Ealing are brilliant. It’s odd then that the Neame film works much better as a drama than a comedy.
Guinness is Gulley Jimson, a vagabond artist, somewhat renowned in his native England, but also an aggressive drunk and nothing close to a law abiding citizen.
There are some great gags in the film, like when Capt. Jones (Reginald Beckwith – who steals the show as the funniest character in here) just tries to drink his pint-
-but the head of it is blown over by Gulley barging in through the door:
There’s also plenty of anarchic fun, mostly towards the middle of the film, when Gulley and a few friends destroy a wealthy couples’ apartment in the name of art:
But the strongest parts of The Horse’s Mouth are when Gulley is introspective about his own work and how to make his mark.
It’s not so much a knock on a slip in Guinness’ ability as a comedian, but more a testament to his dramatic character.Neame’s style is unshowy and doesn’t add much to the picture. He lets Guinness and the source material do much of the work. It’s actually a side character who gets the funniest line: “I can honestly say I’m the last person in the world to harbor thoughts of revenge, but I would like to cut off Jimson’s head with a meat axe.”
And so it’s the final act (and though the final several scenes are close to corny, they’re also adventurous and rebellious in the spirit of the whole film) that works best. There’s a marked change in that act, downshifting from slapstick anarchy to subdued introversion.