Monday 23 February 2009

The Horse's Mouth (1958)

Director: Ronald Neame
Star: Alec Guinness

Two years before Alec Guinness starred with Kay Walsh in a Ronald Neame film called Tunes of Glory, Alec Guinness starred with Kay Walsh in a Ronald Neame film called The Horse's Mouth. He knew Walsh well, of course, given that they'd played together in Oliver Twist a decade earlier, but she played off him so well that it's not surprising to find another collaboration. This one isn't so well known, but what makes it important is that Guinness wrote it himself. As you might expect, he's a real character. He's Gulley Jimson, a painter but also an irascible, gravel throated, dirty old man: Wilfred Brambell was definitely paying attention when he built his character for Steptoe and Son.

We first meet him getting out of Wormwood Scrubs and promptly asking to be taken back in again because a young man is trying to help him. This is Nosey, who is a huge fan of Jimson's and who wants to be a painter himself. Jimson doesn't want to know and has a habit of being rude to everyone, regardless of whether they want to help him or not, so he steals his bike and heads back to his rundown houseboat. Naturally Jimson, like all apparent geniuses, has no money, so Mrs Coker, the barmaid at his local pub and very possibly special friend, takes him on a quest to raise some by locating some of his early paintings that a millionaire is apparently willing to pay good money for.

They can't recover the paintings but they do end up in trouble, as always. They're with Mr Hickson, an old collector who Jimson has taken money from for years, but he's not happy with him. Jimson has a habit of ringing Hickson up on the phone and threatening to kill him, which means that the police are very aware of who he is. Before they find him though, he finds the millionaire, Sir William Beeder, and decides that he has a mission to paint a wall in his apartment. So he does, even though the Beeders really have no clue about any of it because they promptly leave on a long holiday. Jimson moves in and takes over, selling most of the property in the apartment in order to pay for the supplies to turn this wall into his vision.

Jimson is an unlikely hero, and an unlikely anti-hero at that. He's a rogue and a terror and there's not a lot that can be said in his favour, but somehow he remains sympathetic in the way Guinness embues him with life. It's a very unique taken on life, but as Jimson describes one of his paintings, 'you can put any price on it because it's unique.' He's one of those people who through their very existence liven up everyone around them, usually in ways that aren't appreciated but which provide plenty of stories after he's gone. It doesn't take a huge mural of the Last Judgement, it just takes who he is. And he's who Alec Guinness makes him, as both writer and actor.

It's another peach of a Guinness performance, full of joy and bluster and blissfully characterful body movement. Just the way his eyes move is wonderful to behold and that final flourish of the arm as he passes another new wall is perfection. This one came a year after his Oscar winning performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai and a year before Our Man in Havana. Of course each performance is utterly unlike the ones around it, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest, but it's getting to the point that I'm beginning to wonder if he ever played any character twice.

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