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The Horse's Mouth
cast: Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Mike Morgan, Michael Gough, and Renee Houston

director: Ronald Neame

91 minutes (PG) 1958
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 20 October]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
A critic once wrote that where this film fell down was in using the work of 'kitchen sink' painter John Bratby to represent Gulley Jimson's paintings. Whereas the fashions of the 1960s, with the trend for pop art, would have made Bratby's canvasses look hopelessly out of step, in our more eclectic times we can indulge the choice.

Films about art tend to focus on the artist's struggle; they are invariably portrayed as maverick loners battling a system that does not appreciate or understand them, if indeed they wish to be understood or appreciated. This film, based on Joyce Carey's novel, follows the trend, but makes a comedy of what in its literary form was more of a social and political commentary. Some of the darker areas of Jimson's character and deeds are glossed over, and the ending is substantially lighter in tone.

The artist's struggle is probably not something modern audiences are particularly interested in. Modern art is increasingly impenetrable; conceptual art is a bête-noir for The Daily Mail demographic, lights going on and off, people sprinting through galleries, poo on plinths, and artists wielding chainsaws. In actual fact it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy Banksy, Anthony Gormley, and Richard Long, and turn your nose up at the work of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, or the other way about. Unfortunately limited consumer attention spans favour polarisation of opinion; 'I don't know about art but I know what I like' is actually a more thoughtful response than 'I hate modern art'.

The film opens with Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness, Our Man In Havana) being released from prison. He has been persecuting a collector Hickson (Ernest Thesiger, Bride Of Frankenstein) who he believes has cheated him out of money for his paintings. Jimson is attended by Nosey (Mike Morgan, who tragically died of meningitis during filming) an earnest acolyte to Jimson's reluctant mentor. When Jimson receives a letter from millionaire collectors Sir William and Lady Beeder, wishing to buy some early work, he is accompanied by his landlady friend Coker (Kay Walsh, Oliver Twist) to the home of his ex-wife Sara (Renee Houston, Repulsion), and to Hickson, to try and acquire his missing paintings. A visit to the Beeders' inspires him to create a mural on one of the walls of their apartment in their absence, but the combination of his selfish artistic vision and the arrival of equally selfish sculptor Abel (Michael Gough, Batman And Robin) lead to vandalism. Hickson's death, and his gift to the nation of Jimson's early work bring about a reassessment of the artist's career and he embarks upon a giant mural in a church marked for demolition.

The soundtrack music is from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije, the 'Emperor's New Clothes' style satire on bureaucrats forced to invent exploits for a non-existent army officer for fear of contradicting the Tsar. Whether this theme is appropriated for the film to highlight the vagaries of the art world, or simply because it is nice and jaunty, is unknown.

Guinness wrote the screenplay and dominates a movie of sound performances; Kay Walsh and Renee Houston are excellent. Guinness' skill is in making the audience warm to a character that is far from likeable at first sight. Scruffy, with a scuttling, skipping gait, and a harsh timbre to his voice, Jimson comes across like Albert Steptoe. By the end of the film he has acquired a kind of majestic dignity.

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