The Horse’s Mouth: Criterion Collection

January 28, 2012 7 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) is broke, has bad manners, is ill behaved, and is not above using underhanded tactics, but above all else, he is an artist. But even his finest works have left him cold, as the finished projects simply do not match up to the visions inside his head, much to his dissatisfaction. He does not take the blame however, as he insists that his skills are not the cause of the problems, but that his canvas is. His claim is that his vision can only be supported by the perfect canvas, which means of course, he needs to find this almost mythical substance. So Jimson sets his mind to finding this elusive perfect canvas and of course, nothing can stand between him and his goal, no matter what it might be. He soon manipulates his way inside the home of a rich couple and once they’ve left for vacation, Jimson makes some renovations. He pawns off their belongings to fund his project and leaves them with a massive mural, as well as some other assorted surprises. But can Jimson ever find his perfect canvas and even if he does, can even that hold his vision as he sees it inside his mind?

I’ve seen a number of films about artists and their inner workings, but few have been as effective as Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth. While films like Pollock also capture the essence of the artist, The Horse’s Mouth takes a much different approach, opting to use comedic techniques instead of traditional dramatic means. In fact, this movie is sheer lunacy at times and often involved madcap situations, all of which result in ample laughs and a very, very entertaining overall experience. You might think that such an outrageous comic film couldn’t get across any kind of message about an artist, but when the artist is Gulley Jimson, you need to have that sort of chaos and insanity, without question. And with a master performer like Alec Guinness in command of such a bold character, you know the effort will memorable and it is, as Guinness is superb in all respects. I am so pleased to this released as part of The Criterion Collection, as this is the kind of brilliant, effective picture that the series prides itself on hosting. I give this film a high recommendation and of course, this Criterion disc is a more than worthwhile purchase.

As interesting as this film is, I think without the presence of Alec Guinness, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective in most aspects. But then again, since Guinness also wrote the film’s screenplay, I doubt anyone else was even considered in this case. It would seem to be one of those times where an actor took such an interest in a character that he took it upon himself to make it happen, as Guinness is remarkable within the picture. The inspired nature of Guinness’ effort here reveals his personal interest in the material, as he turns in one of his greatest performances, a true compliment since he had so many powerful turns. In the end, this is yet another testament to the skills of Guinness and if you’re a fan of his work, you cannot miss The Horse’s Mouth. Other films with Guinness include Great Expectations, Tunes of Glory, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. The cast also includes Kay Walsh (The Ruling Class, Oliver Twist), Renee Houston (The Flesh and The Fiends, Repulsion), and Mike Morgan (Barnacle Bill).

Video: How does it look?

The Horse’s Mouth is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Although the image here is quite acceptable, it doesn’t seem as though Criterion used their usual restoration methods, as the print looks on the worn side. The defects are not too serious, but you’ll see more grain, nicks, and debris than usual, which is a let down, since this is such a visual film that needs a top notch presentation. But this is a solid overall effort, as the print isn’t in too bad of condition and the rest of the elements seem in good form also. The colors are brighter than expected, though still faded a little by time and contrast is smooth & balanced. As I said, I do some restoration work would have been done, but this is still an acceptable visual effort.

Audio: How does it sound?

The included mono option is clean and crisp throughout, thanks to some cleanup work by Criterion to remove various imperfections. I did notice some muffled moments, but they were minor and aside from that, no age related issues arise. I heard no hiss or pops, while harshness is minimal and never much of a distraction. The dialogue is sharp and easy to understand on the whole, while the music & sound effects, while limited due to mono’s nature, come through as well as can be expected. This disc also includes optional English subtitles.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This disc includes an informative, enjoyable nineteen minute interview (made in 2001) with Naeme, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. You’ll also find a documentary short by D.A. Pennebaker titled Daybreak Express, for which Pennebaker has recorded a brief video introduction. This short was run before The Horse’s Mouth during the film’s New York theatrical stint, so its inclusion is most welcome.

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