Alec Guinness looks like no one, which means he can look like anyone. “Facially,” the great critic and journalist Kenneth Tynan wrote, “he is akin to what John Locke imagined the mind of a newborn child to be — an unmarked blank, on which circumstances leave their casual trace.” Few actors have been so elusive and so captivating at once, so microfaceted in their offhanded subtlety. No matter how well you think you know Guinness as a performer, there’s always more to see.
Guinness’s movies, particularly the comedies he did for Ealing Studios in the ’40s and ’50s, show up from time to time in repertory houses, and certainly on cable. But rarely do so many of the films made by this quietly magnificent actor show up in one glorious, lady-killing festival like the one that kicks off at Film Forum on June 13 (and runs through July 3). This centenary tribute includes all of the usual suspects, like the Ealing favorite The Man in the White Suit (June 20 and 21) and all six of Guinness’s collaborations with David Lean, among them The Bridge on the River Kwai (June 22) and Lawrence of Arabia (June 29 and 30). It also includes the movie that some of us still refer to as plain old Star Wars (1977), which ensured that a new generation of moviegoers would never say “Alec Who?”
But Film Forum has also collected some gently glittering treasures that show up far less frequently. One of those is the discreetly audacious 1953 comedy The Captain’s Paradise (June 25), which, on the surface, glows with a quaint ’50s propriety. But you couldn’t make a movie like it today, given people’s anxieties about open marriages or any kind of extramarital straying: Guinness stars as Henry St. James, the wholly proper captain of a small ship that shuttles between Gibraltar and the (fictional) North African port of Kalique. When the ship docks in the bustling, exotic Kalique, he dons a white suit, grabs his walking stick, and makes his way via taxi to his vixen of a wife, Yvonne De Carlo’s Nita. He hands her a package (contents: racy underwear) and the two dance their evening away in a local nightclub. In somewhat more staid Gibraltar, he exits the ship in uniform, and, after stopping off to pick up another wrapped package (contents: a new vacuum cleaner), he strides home confidently to his second missus — or was she the first? — Celia Johnson’s dutiful, ever-cheerful Maud. The two have a quiet dinner, home-cooked, of course, and retire early. Shuttling between these two disparate and devoted women, Henry has found the secret to wedded bliss — and he gets away with it for nearly the entire movie.
But wait: The Captain’s Paradise opens with Henry facing a firing squad, so we can assume early on that he’ll eventually get caught for his sneaky two-timing. But oh, the pleasure of watching him work such duplicitous magic! Guinness summons a range of sly expressions, covering everything from manipulative flirtiness to distracted, husbandly fake enthusiasm. When he needs to, or when it suits him, he flashes what John le Carré called, with on-the-nose sagacity, that “mischievous dolphin smile.”
Even though we think of Guinness’s polychrome range of half-sighs and sidelong glances as the core of his acting style, his physicality is just as extraordinary: As Mr. Nita, he trips lightly onto the nightclub dance floor, swooping and dipping as if he thinks he ought to have been born Fred Astaire. As Mr. Maud, he strides toward the door of the couple’s cozy cottage with soldierly authority — at this home, he’s the great provider, the kindly but masculine figure who has duly earned his wife’s admiration and devotion, just by providing her with the occasional helpful household appliance. We want to see him get away with this terribly naughty double life — thank God the movie’s surprise ending doesn’t wholly condemn him.
Guinness gets away with a very different kind of mischief in Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (July 2), from 1958, based on Joyce Cary’s novel. His Gulley Jimson is a gifted, wild-eyed painter who has fallen on hard times, a whiskery misanthrope who thinks nothing of filching his wealthy friends’ belongings and then pawning them to buy paint. He’s an egotist, yet it’s not personal glory he’s after: He’s chasing the purest and most glorious expression of his vision, the ability to translate the magnificence of all that he sees in his head onto the welcoming blankness of the canvas. At one point he splashes a wild and evocative mural, replete with depictions of a ferocious tiger and worn-out, elderly feet, onto the previously pristine wall of a very proper rich lady who has gone off on holiday. (Needless to say, he didn’t bother to get her permission first.)
After weeks of labor, and after making a proper mess of the woman’s palatial digs, he stops to take the measure of his resplendent, totally out-there handiwork, and can only stare at it in despair. “Why doesn’t it fit, like it does in the mind?” he mutters in his grizzled rasp of a voice, his words accompanied by a heartbreaking gesture: He presses his hands to his eyes, blotting out the vision before him in favor of the one in his head, the one that tortures him with its perfect proportions and revolutionary colors. As Tynan presciently said of Guinness, some half-dozen years before The Horse’s Mouth, “He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly.”
Guinness can make you feel deeply for an old bastard like Gulley Jimson. He can also be impossibly, pulse-stoppingly charming. If at all possible, I urge you to see Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations (June 15 and 19) on the big screen. That way you can behold, blown up larger than life, one of the most exuberant entrances in all of film history, an instance of an extraordinary performer being introduced to the world. Guinness was already an experienced actor in 1946, having performed extensively onstage (and taken a few years off to serve in the Navy during the war). In fact, he’d already played Pip’s dear friend Herbert Pocket in his own stage production of Great Expectations in 1939. That’s the role in which Lean cast him in the film version, and aside from some earlier work as an extra, it was Guinness’s first appearance in a motion picture.
In Lean’s adaptation, John Mills’s Pip has just arrived at the London apartment that’s to be his new home, only to realize that his flatmate (whom he hasn’t met — or whom he thinks he hasn’t met) isn’t at home. Just then, an ebullient lad with a tipsy blond forelock and a radiant smile bounds up the stairs, his top hat perched rakishly toward the back of his head. This is Herbert Pocket, Pip’s new best friend. It’s also an impossibly young — at least for an actor whom we tend to think of as an old man in a perpetually middle-age-man’s body — Guinness. Long before he was a wrinkled and wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was a 32-year-old playing a 20-year-old, rushing up the stairs. Out of breath and full of the dickens, he looked just like a kid.