Alec Guinness in The Horse's Mouth

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

It’s kind of a rare experience to watch a movie made 50 years ago and feel like it could be made today without changing anything but practical details. Fitting perfectly to that description is The Horse’s Mouth, directed by Ronald Neame in 1958, just one tiny stop in Sir Alec Guinness’s great career and his only writing credit ever, along with respectful award nominations.

The movie revolves around one central character, an artist named Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) who just got out of a month’s stay in jail for addressing phone threats to his former patron Mr. Hickson. Jimson is the son of a career painter and a proper craftsman. He chose a different path - he’s obsessed with new forms and constantly trying to find money and a larger canvas to paint his unconventional masterpieces on. Meanwhile he’s stalked by Nosey, a wannabe artist, a young man who admires him but doesn’t seem to have a lot going for him in Jimson’s area of creative work. He also has to deal with Cokey, a down-to-earth mistress and his former wife Sarah, a libertine-model-turned-middle-class-mum, as well as the Beeders, a couple of millionaires who consider themselves cultured enough to appreciate an original Jimson. All of these people are extremely drawn to him besides the fact that he pushes them away, constantly exploiting their weaknesses to reach his ultimate goal, his mural of mythical value, his success at putting on canvas exactly what is in the mind…

It seems that Guinness, while writing his screenplay, chose a different path for his character than the original carved out by Joyce Cary in his novel by the same name. He took out all the sociopolitical commentary and focused on the inner burdens of being an artist trying to persuade people that what you do is more than pretty decoration for their living room. No matter how futile this effort seems, Guinness’s Jimson never loses touch with his obsession, never succumbs to the ways of the world even when that would mean getting the money he needs a lot easier. He goes about doing what he pleases, in an arrogant, self-absorbed but also self-destructive way, living off his peers while blessing them with his insulting honesty, and his adventurous nature. But there isn’t a canvas big enough to hold his ego or his magnum opus and there isn’t anything you might like on this man. Yet, he grows on you as you watch him in that totally cliched manner of the village idiot becoming the village wise man due to his self-destructive honesty.

Besides this incredibly compelling central character, Guinness managed to create a great bunch of supporting characters too, whom we come to know better through clever bits of dialogue or little details in their manners and actions. Nosey considers Jimson a genius and yearns to learn from him while cleaning his brushes. But how can you learn anything by stepping in someone else’s footsteps? Cokey is a woman of realistic aspirations, very conscious of her plain looks and her limited potential who tries to win Jimson by protecting him. But how do you keep a spirit like that down to earth? Sarah is a compromised ex-beauty, who keeps Jimson’s naked painting of hers locked up as a reminder that she was once admired for her looks. But how can you be satisfied with yourself through someone else’s work? The Beeders are wannabe patrons whose naivete Jimson exploits, before embarking in a totally unsatisfactory creative orgy in their luxurious appartment building while they are away. They get their painting in a way, but how can you unleash an artist’s furore without losing control?

Alec Guinness practically sinks into the main role, which is natural considering his skills and the fact that he wrote it. He is a pure pleasure to watch as is his supporting cast. From the director’s chair, Ronald Neame creates a paced narrative out of a narration-less story of a character who just drifts back and forth from situation to situation. He also manages to set up some great visual and physical gags reminding us that this is a comedy, though a very unusual one.

The Horse’s Mouth is a movie about art, written and performed by an exceptional artist in his own right. Fortunately it’s made in a way that it will never be outdated, a fresh and funny piece of philosophical commentary and a beautiful sample of cinematic art. As Jimson says: Half a minute of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothing.” There is a good chance that you’ll find 30 such seconds somewhere in this refreshing film.


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