For an avowed comedy—and that is indeed what it is—The Horse’s Mouth is shot through with a vein of melancholy that I hadn’t expected for some reason. Although, in saying that, I should add that I wasn’t really sure what to expect of it; I just found it going reasonably cheap at Lawson’s a few weeks ago and thought “eh, let’s add it to the collection”. Alec Guinness not only stars, he wrote the screenplay based on Joyce Cary’s book, at least partly to convince director Ronald Neame that the book actually wasn’t as unfilmable as he thought. Never read it myself (nor any other Cary, which I should probably rectify), but I gather it’s reasonably faithful apart from the ending (happy rather than tragic). This is the sort of film that stands or falls on one central performance, and fortunately Guinness is stunning as Gulley Jimson, the “improper” painter. When we first see him, he’s just being freed from jail for continually harrassing a former patron; one of his first acts upon release is to harrass the poor man again. In many ways Gulley is a deeply unpleasant character, whose commitment to art above all other considerations—especially the acquisition of normal social graces—means he comes trailing clouds of chaos and destruction behind him in his quest to realise his vision on the ideal canvas. It’s a sign of how good Guinness is that he actually makes him sympathetic and appealing, and it’s that melancholy streak which makes him so… in another film those flashing moments of self-awareness he displays, the realisation that maybe he’s not the artist he once was, might come across as an overly obvious and manipulative attempt to humanise an essentially unpleasant character, but in these hands there’s something far more sincere at work. It’s a terrific performance, and it would’ve been a markedly lesser film had it starred someone who believed in it less than Guinness seems to have done.
The Horse’s Mouth (1958)