The Quiet Man: Guinness on screen: Sir Alec Guinness is 80 next month. David Thomson and Irving Wardle look back on a 60-year career that spans stage, film and television

IN HIS delightful and devoutly absent-minded autobiography, Blessings in Disguise (1985), Alec Guinness revealed an attitude to movies akin to settled vicars hearing of bingo as a new way of doing the Lord's work. He had taken Edith Evans out to an expensive lunch. 'Not to worry,' he said, as the bill loomed. 'I'm filming.' He was making The Lavender Hill Mob, and getting pounds 6,000. Dame Edith nearly fell in her Bombe Surprise. 'I must make another film,' she decided. 'Or do you call them movies?'

'The money is the same, whatever you may call them.'

'And you enjoy it?' she asked.

'Quite,' he said.

What I treasure about Guinness on screen is that airy restraint, the polite lending of himself for the moment to Fagin in Oliver Twist or Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. For Guinness did what was offered with serene lack of ego. So his astonishing incarnation of decrepit corruption as Fagin still has an edge of detachment, like his beatific smile in interviews when admitting that, yes, he does seem to have 2 1/4 per cent of the producer's profits on Star Wars (which must make him one of the richest English actors).

There's something else on Guinness's mind when he's acting. His characters have other rooms to their lives, not opened up in the movies, but possibly as interesting. Who knows where this extra dimension or possibility comes from? Perhaps of all our great actors Guinness has most surrendered to the spiritual life. Is it that faith that lets his sad, peaceful eyes gaze past the camera?

He has needed some solace. With so little ordinary ambition, Guinness has made wayward choices and daft films: Hitler: The Last Ten Days; a pope in Brother Sun, Sister Moon; a rather glassy Arab king in Lawrence of Arabia; Japanese in A Majority of One; The Quiller Memorandum; The Malta Story. Then there is his regrettable doctor in A Passage to India.

But think of these other pictures, and consider who else could have allowed as much mystery or privacy in Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai; eight D'Ascoynes in Kind Hearts and Coronets; The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers; that destroyer of order and bringer of rapture, Gulley Jimson, in The Horse's Mouth (for which he also wrote the script); Charles I in Cromwell; the cardinal in The Prisoner (a film that meant so much to him it is not mentioned in his autobiography); and, of course, Smiley, for television, perhaps his finest role - so ordinary, so elusive, so decent and so stricken. How has a knighted actor stayed so subtle so long? DT