The many faces of Alec Guinness - reticent knight of the screen

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Film Studies

Film Studies

Now that the last of our mid-century acting knights has gone, it's tempting to picture all five of them in some royal colloquy. Olivier would surely hold the central, kingly ground. Ralph Richardson would take up the role of jester or deaf sommelier, just as John Gielgud would be floating master of ceremonies. Michael Redgrave might sit still, hunched and stunned, and Alec Guinness would be their fond audience, clapping lightly at their jokes sighing with a rapture for their stories.

If approached directly, Guinness would say well, of course, he was their first disciple, a man so much in their debt. He had been younger, he would admit, and he would leave it to us to gather that he was more naturally shy, deferential, modest, inward than the others. And amused. Then Olivier, his instincts alert to competition, would jump out of his sleepy self with "Watch out for Alec! Altogether too reticent to be trusted." And Guinness then would chuckle, that pale, clear voice fruity with distinction. "You're too kind," he'd say. And somehow his bare eloquence lets you see how little kindness has to do with it.

He was the best read of actors and the most spiritually devout. Yet his bearing was simple, gentle and serene. If you ever doubt that, take another look at Oliver Twist (1948) and recollect that Guinness was only 34 at the time. The performance was a masterpiece of make-up as well as an inadvertent revelation of attitudes to Jewishness three years after the War.

Decades later, the performance seems surely (if innocently) anti-semitic. But there was something else: Fagin was ancient, but still as playful as his boys needed him to be. Guinness had read Dickens and seen how Fagin was a grotesque grown-up in the eyes of wretched youth. He was a monster but an abstract figure. With any more human immediacy, the pederastic signals would have been claustrophobic. Guinness's daring helped David Lean and other actors find the scale of Dickens.

So, early on, it seemed that Guinness on screen was a natural character actor, a master of voices (from pompous-lugubrious to bloodless aristocratic - Peter Sellers was one of his unofficial students). You could find that actor playing six d'Ascoynes in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), six stupid skittles for the droll Denis Price to dispatch. He put on a very clever nose to be Disraeli opposite Irene Dunne's Queen Victoria in The Mudlark (1950). He was gaunt but disturbing as one of The Ladykillers. And then, in 1959, with John Bratby's actual art, he was Gully Jimson, the mad muralist, in the film of Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, directed by Ronald Neame.

At the time, not much fuss was made that Guinness had done the screenplay for that film himself, or that he loved the belligerent, divinely dangerous Jimson. The Horse's Mouth came out two years after Lust for Life, the movie in which Kirk Douglas was the famously self-destructive Vincent Van Gogh. And very good, too. But Jimson is so much more complex an artist, so much sadder, braver and wiser that he has come to terms with the need to live. Guinness's Gulley Jimson was maybe the best thing he ever did, and it had a ferocity and a strength to make Olivier flinch. The Horse's Mouth knew that real art was the sworn enemy of reasonable life and box-office contentment.

But there was also another Guinness of the screen - the open, level face that used no make-up; the easy-going young man, just a little absent-minded or distracted - slightly empty of ordinariness, you knew there might be magic present. You can see that man on television today as the inventor in The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Card (1952), as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1947); as Father Brown (1954) and even in The Prisoner (1955), a stark religious allegory taken from a Bridget Boland play and made for one of his favourite directors, Peter Glenville.

The plain man and the larger-than-life figure were artfully married in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the film for which Guinness won an Oscar, and his knighthood. Like Fagin, Colonel Nicholson was more concept than daily reality, but Guinness grasped how much suffering and martyrdom could build towards something close to madness. A subtler director might have watched that performance and a more intriguing picture.

Guinness was by then an international figure - and his Gulley Jimson was the most purposeful advantage he took of that new status. It may be felt that he coasted thereafter (for 30 years or more), doing a great many interesting things, and as many that were foolish or unnecessary: he played Hitler in The Last Ten Days, he was a Pope in Brother Sun, Sister Moon; he was a saintly Charles I. He was also Obi-Wan Kenobi for George Lucas in Star Wars - getting 2.25 per cent of the profits, but becoming disillusioned with the Star Wars culture. He was very good, if rather shrill, as an aggressive Scots officer who tormented John Mills in Tunes of Glory in 1960 - again for Ronald Neame). He was a king in Lawrence of Arabia, the brother in Doctor Zhivago; and then a misguided role, as an Indian in David Lean's A Passage to India - a sad and quarrelsome end to their association.

In later years, he seemed happy to be a character actor again as Mr Todd in A Handful of Dust, having Dickens read to him; as the great worrier, watcher, listener, George Smiley, in several TV films, standing for English dismay in the face of evil. He was often there always working, but in truth he had no faith that acting and the movies were all-important. There were other things that he had met or encountered. There was also a huge, frozen-faced humour - as witness his life of practical jokes with Grace Kelly.

He thought that life was small and its mysteries very large. You could hear the amusement in that far-away dry-white-wine voice. It means that even his bits and pieces are often more rewarding than others' great explosions.