Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Horse's Mouth (1958)

The Brattle Theatre had an art-themed film series in preparation for their big art auction, and while sadly I missed screenings of Stolen and The Art of the Steal, I did get to see Alec Guinness as an uncouth, drunken painter destroying property in 1950's London. So that was nice. Unfortunately the print was severely faded and most of the colors fell into yellow-brown-red territory. That was not so nice, especially for a film about art. Oh well. In The Horse's Mouth, Guinness (who also adapted the script from Joyce Cary's novel) stars as Gulley Jimson, an aging, overconfident painter recently released from prison who seeks the perfect wall on which to paint a major biblical mural.

After attempting to reclaim some older works to sell with the aid of no-nonsense bar-owner Dee Coker (Kay Walsh), Jimson sets himself up in the swanky apartment of a wealthy family interested in his art who have gone away for an extended vacation. He all but destroys their home as he paints a feet-focused mural of Lazarus, but doesn't quite finish it in time before they come home, confused and furious. He moves on to the next big wall: a soon-to-be-demolished church that will require more help than he deserves to complete in time.

Knowing very little about The Horse's Mouth going in, I was quite pleasantly surprised. While the plot is sort of loose, the screenplay relies on funny, fast-paced dialogue and a few well-spoken observations on the nature of art to keep things interesting. The pacing is off sometimes and it feels like several short stories are packed together into one, but it's such a fun time that it doesn't matter all that much. Guinness is delightful as the bawdy, rude, too-smart-for-his-own-good artist, spouting insults in a gravelly voice and hopping about with surprising agility. And I adored Kay Walsh as the hardened, straightforward Mrs Coker. She is completely badass and ferociously independent, and I just loved the ballsiness of her character. She disappears for about a third of the movie, though, unfortunately.

Though it is primarily a comedy, the film does make some good points about art and artists while showcasing some beautiful Modern paintings. The script cuts through a lot of the bullshit surrounding the artist's mentality while respecting the spiritual importance of art itself, and I thought that was a really cool combination. I just wish I could have seen a better print so I'd have a better idea of the colors used for the murals. Regardless, The Horse's Mouth is a hilarious art-themed comedy (not too many of those!) with great performances, though slightly hampered by its loose structure and uneven pacing. And it's on Criterion so eventually I'll probably see a better-looking version!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: For various small reasons, this movie reminded me of Mary Poppins, not in theme obviously but in its sly tone, weird details, and London setting. Or for another fun art-themed comedy, try 2009's (Untitled).

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