Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Renee Houston, Mike Morgan, Robert Coote, Veronica Turleigh, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger
Director:  Ronald Neame
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  June 4, 2002

“The world needs artists!”

“Lunatics, too.  But don’t go putting yourself into an asylum any sooner than you have to!”

Film ***

The artist’s problem would seem to be that no matter how talented he is, there is a world of a physical universe that exists between his imagination and his canvas.  “Why doesn’t it look the way it did in my head?” Gulley Jimson (Guinness) pines at one point.  Of course, for a character like him, it may be the least of his problems, but it’s the only one he sees.

While Jimson may be lamenting his efforts, Guinness is in top artistic form in Ronald Neame’s film The Horse’s Mouth.  Guinness himself adapted the screenplay from Joyce Cary’s novel, in addition to making the lead role one of his most memorable performances in a distinguished career.  His vision of Gulley is comically sympathetic.  He goes from seeming merely eccentric to dangerously off-balanced, yet we always like him and root for him.  We may not want to spend time with him, but we’ll always enjoy his company as long as we’re safe on our side of the screen.

The story is motivated by character instead of plot…there is no real structural outline; merely the antics of Gulley Jimson as he goes about his business.  The picture uses his character to slyly comment on classes, relationships, and of course, art.  Gulley is revered by some, like the stuttering would-be student Nosey (Morgan) and reviled by others, like his one-time patron Hickson (the delightful Thesiger).  Others seem to love and loathe him simultaneously, like his long-suffering girlfriend Coker (Walsh), whose efforts to help him are often thwarted by his own self-centeredness.

Amongst the memorable episodes are Gulley and Coker attempting to collect a debt from his ex-wife Sara (Houston) that he really isn’t owed, Gulley’s funny and inept phone calls to Hickson, and two scenes involving his painting.  One is when he takes it upon himself to decorate a blank wall in a rich couple’s apartment, even though the wall is only blank because a tapestry has been temporarily removed.  In a struggle with a sculptor (Hough), the apartment inadvertently becomes a duplex, leaving the perplexed couple with that sinking feeling…I will say no more.

The other sequence involves Gulley’s attempt to save a chapel by collecting a troupe of supposed “students” to help get his design on its great wall, thinking no one would tear it down if it were a great work of art!  But business and politics go on, leaving Gulley with only one final, touching, amusing alternative.

Movies about artists and their art have always been fascinating to me, be they interpretive like Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet or firm character studies, like Lust for Life.  The Horse’s Mouth makes its points as well, but subversively, through comedy and eccentricity.  Gulley, in the end, is his own man.  As an artist, he seems to defy typical traditions of class and societal relationships.  Which is why the conclusion is so fitting, I think.

In the end, a painter’s got to paint…and what good is a blank wall, anyway?

Video ***

Criterion delivers another quality transfer for a classic film here.  While I still consider their DVD of Mon Oncle the standard for 1950s color films, The Horse’s Mouth is quite good in its own right.  Colors are bright and well rendered from start to finish, and the print is in considerable shape for its age:  only a small handful of noticeable spots or marks here and there.  Fades, as is often the case, are the hardest to restore, and those are the instances where the source limitations are most apparent…but they only serve to prove how well the studio’s transfer, supervised by Ronald Neame, really serves.

Audio **

Like most mono mixes, this is a serviceable but unremarkable mix.  Dialogue is well serviced, as is the musical score, but dynamic range is mediocre at best.  No complaints, and no praises either.

Features **1/2

The disc features an original trailer, a short modern interview with Neame, and the short film “Daybreak Express” by D. A. Pennebaker, which originally ran on the bill with The Horse’s Mouth during its first run in New York.  Pennebaker also introduces his film, for a nice touch, and the picture itself is quite interesting in a visual sense…sort of a love letter to the geometry of the city.  It merits the extra ½ star in this category.


The Horse’s Mouth may comically show an artist struggling with himself, but in real life, Alec Guinness as actor and screenwriter was never in better form.  This portrait of the artist as a madman is a must see for both lovers of film and painting.