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Ronald Neame
Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Renee Houston, Mike Morgan, Robert Coote
Alec Guinness, based on the novel by Joyce Cary
Not Rated.
Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Screenplay.

Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9
English Digital Mono

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 6/4/2002

• Video Interview with Director Ronald Neame
• Short Film Daybreak Express with Introduction from Director D.A. Pennebaker
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The Horse's Mouth: Criterion (1958)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Usually when films try to depict the life of an artist, they do so in a fairly somber and serious manner. One of the most famous flicks about a painter, 1956’s Lust For Life apparently offers a dramatic evaluation of Vincent Van Gogh, and more recent efforts like 2000’s Pollack also seem to focus largely on the darker sides of their subjects.

However, not all of these sorts of flicks take that approach, as demonstrated by 1958’s moderately comedic The Horse’s Mouth. Perhaps this occurred because unlike the others I mentioned, Mouth focused on a fictional artist. The movie examines the life of aging painter Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness), an eccentric genius. At the start of the film, he gets released from jail; he entered captivity because he consistently harassed Lord Hickson (Ernest Thesiger) for the return of his paintings.

This doesn’t happen, and Gulley schemes to make ends meet and achieve his desired artistic successes by other means. He always remains in search of the perfect canvas to bring to fruition his larger-than-life ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to care what havoc he wreaks in the process. Along the way, he totally trashes the posh flat owned by Sir William (Robert Coote) and Lady Beeder (Veronica Turleigh) and he takes over the enormous wall a decrepit church in his never-ending quest for the ideal setting. We also see Gulley’s cantankerous interactions with long-suffering sometimes-girlfriend Coker (Kay Walsh) and his aspiring protégé Nosey (Mike Morgan).

While Mouth usually maintains a comedic focus, it doesn’t exclude all other elements. The third act offers some particularly poignant moments while Gulley looks as though he might finally start to come to terms with his egocentric lifestyle. The death of another character hits the self-oriented character in a surprisingly hard way, and Gulley also shows disillusionment toward his continued woes.

However, these moments pass, and farce returns to the forefront. This makes Mouth an interesting approach to the traditional story of the struggling, self-destructive artist. Guinness makes Gulley likeably disagreeable. He chews more than his fair share of scenery via his extremely broad and caricatured performance, but this never harms the movie. Everyone else emotes heavily as well, so Guinness doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Instead, the results seem fairly lively and witty, as it’s nice to see a film of this sort that doesn’t always take itself too seriously.

At times, the silliness of The Horse’s Mouth threatens to overwhelm it, but that never quite happens. Instead, its own goofy comic energy carries the day. The flick offers enough depth and introspection to keep it from turning totally absurd, and an engagingly crotchety performance from Alec Guinness also allows the movie to work. I can’t say that I adored Mouth, but as a whole I enjoyed this nutty flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio D+ / Bonus C+

The Horse’s Mouth appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Given the age of the film, I expected a mix of problems, and the picture indeed showed a number of concerns.

Sharpness usually remained good. Most of the time the image seemed reasonably crisp and distinct. On occasion, I noticed some softness, but those examples appeared to be fairly infrequent. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no problems, and I detected no signs of edge enhancement.

Not surprisingly, print flaws provided a few issues. Moderate amounts of grain appeared throughout the film, and I also witnessed a mix of spots, specks, grit and marks. In addition, the image occasionally flickered somewhat. None of these problems ever seemed terribly heavy, but they did offer some distractions.

Colors also came across as moderately erratic. At times the hues appeared fairly bright and solid, but a brownish tinge occasionally affected the image. This made the colors seem somewhat drab and muddy. Skin tones also displayed pinkish tones at times. Black levels appeared nicely deep and rich, but shadow detail seemed more mediocre, as low-light situations looked a bit murky. Overall, the image quality of The Horse’s Mouth was acceptable when I factored in the age and origins of the film, but the picture never rose above that level.

More problematic was the very inconsistent monaural soundtrack of The Horse’s Mouth. A lot of bad dubbing rendered problems related to dialogue; the poor quality of the looping made those lines rather distracting. In addition, the speech often seemed rough, edgy and sibilant. Combined with the English accents, I occasionally found the dialogue tough to understand.

Other aspects of the mix showed concerns. Effects and music demonstrated acceptable clarity. The score even boasted some decent depth at times, though it often came across as somewhat muted. Still, I had no great complaints about those elements. Unfortunately, the soundtrack suffered from some external issues. It displayed moderately heavy amounts of hiss and noise much of the time. Despite the relatively good effects and music, the source flaws and the weak speech conspired to lower my audio grade to a “D+”; even given the age of the material, the track still seemed more problematic than I’d expect.

A few minor extras appear on The Horse’s Mouth. Most significant is a video interview with director Ronald Neame. Shot in 2001, this 17-minute and 38-minute segment covers a mix of subjects. Neame discusses the book upon which the film was based, how it got to the screen, painters, the film’s music, its star and the cast, and a variety of general production issues. Neame provides a lively and interesting chat that makes me wish he did a full audio commentary.

Next we find a short documentary film called Daybreak Express. Apparently this early work from D.A. Pennebaker ran prior to New York screenings of Mouth, and we get the full five-minute and 18-second piece. Set to the music of Duke Ellington, this journey through New York via train does little for me, but it makes a decent addition to the disc. Pennebaker also adds an optional 162-second introduction in which he briefly discusses his work.

In addition to the original theatrical trailer for Mouth, we get a fairly rich booklet. The latter features three different texts. Critic Bruce Eder offers a short, general interpretation of the flick, while film historian Ian Christie offers a look at the movie more within the context of its era. Lastly, we get an interesting excerpt from Neame’s autobiography in which he discusses one particular interaction with Guinness.

I don’t expect to find the struggling artist motif treated as broad comedy, but The Horse’s Mouth indeed takes that approach. It does so with surprising success, largely aided by an amusingly scenery-chewing performance from Alec Guinness. The DVD provides decent picture with moderately weak sound and an average package of supplements. While not an outstanding DVD, fans of Alec Guinness and the genre should be pleased with The Horse’s Mouth.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 12
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