HORSES MOUTH, THE (director: Ronald Neame; screenwriters: Alec Guinness/based on the novel by Joyce Cary; cinematographer: Arthur Ibbetson; editor: Anne V. Coates; music: Kenneth V. Jones; cast: Alec Guinness (Gulley Jimson), Kay Walsh (Coker), Renee Houston (Sara Monday), Mike Morgan (Nosey), Robert Coote (Sir William Beeder), Arthur Macrae (A.W. Alabaster), Veronica Turleigh (Lady Beeder), Ernest Thesiger (Hickson), Gillian Vaughan (Lollie), Michael Gough (Abel), Reginald Beckwith (Capt. Jones), Richard Caldicot (Hickson’s butler); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Albert Fennell/John Bryan/Ronald Neame; Criterion; 1958-UK)
“It smacks more of an Ealing low-brow whimsical comedy than anything more artistic.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Cinematographer turned director Ronald Neame (“The Poseidon Affair”/”The Odessa File”/”Hopscotch”), at best an uneven filmmaker, mishandles this quirky screwball comedy, keeping it flat and uninspiring, though it became an art-house hit. For those who read Joyce Carey’s splendidly acclaimed 1944 novel (loosely based on Dylan Thomas) this film is a major disappointment the way it reduces the bohemian deadbeat sponger artist’s battle for creativity to solely showing him as an eccentric. It smacks more of an Ealing low-brow whimsical comedy than anything more artistic. Alec Guinness not only stars in it, but writes the screenplay.
What works is the brilliant stroke of adapting the music from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé and the colorful artworks provided by John Bratby.
Eccentric, obsessed, roguish and outcast painter Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) lives like a pauper on a Thames houseboat, dresses like a bum, is gravel-voiced, a petty thief and antisocial. Released from prison after serving a month for harassing his wealthy patron, Hickson (Ernest Thesiger), Jimson immediately makes a threatening call to the well-heeled Hickson to either get fair payment or have the 18 paintings of his that his canny ex-wife Sarah Monday (Renee Houston) cheaply sold him returned. The artist’s protégé is the hero worshiping Nosey (Mike Morgan). His other dearest follower is the irascible barmaid Miss Coker (Kay Walsh), his companion whom he owes a large bar tab to and who goes with him to Hickson to get back her money.
The crux of the comedy is when Jimson maneuvers his way into the home of a wealthy couple, the Beeders (Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh). Sir William Beeder is a patron of the arts, for whom Jimson wants to paint a mural on his apartment’s bare wall of “The Raising of Lazarus” for free if he buys the “Woman in the Bath” that still is hanging in his ex-wife’s apartment. When the drunken Jimson is put up for the night after passing out and finds in the morning the couple have left for a vacation for six-weeks in the Caribbean, he convinces the servants that Sir William gave him permission to reside there and paint the bare wall. Upon their return, the couple are startled to find their home wrecked: a prized antique clock has been pawned, there’s a tiger painted on the wall, a hole in the floor and a statue chiseled downstairs by Jimson’s sculptor friend Abel (Michael Gough). Meanwhile Jimson, surrounded by eager-beaver appreciative art students, begins work on his largest canvas to date, on the wall of a condemned church, where he paints his interpretation of Noah’s ark. This leads to further adventures that prove that Jimson might be a madman, but still he’s a servant to the imagination who his impulsive followers compare to the great artist William Blake.
REVIEWED ON 4/7/2009 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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