The measure of Alec Guinness's achievement in The Horse's Mouth is a slick short that the Brattle has chosen to show with it called A Day in the Life of the Artist. This is an uncompromisingly snide little gibe at the bad and calculating modern artist, and, obviously, it takes its cue from The Horse's Mouth, if it has not, indeed, been directly plagiarized from it (the techniques of mockery--ironic use of background music, for example--are certainly the same).
But the bad painter of A Day has the soul of a businessman, and is so uninteresting a figure as to be tiresome even as a figure of fun; while the bad painter, Gully Jimson, of The Horse's Mouth has the soul of an artist, and is endlessly fascinating, Jimson the shambling, vital Bohemian is Guinness's triumph, aand what a pity it is that he has never found or been given another vehicle like this one: for here, surely, in the emotionally intricate realm of sentimental, subtle farce Guinness is at his very best. His Jimson is much funnier than his man in a suit, much more believable than his cardinal.
Everything about The Horse's Mouth is deft, and much of it is truly remarkable. Guinnesss wrote the screenplay himself--basing it, of course, on Joyce Cary's novel--and this, certainly, is worthy of some note. The minor characters are all broadly comic, or meant to be (why is it that, ever since Dickens, the English have always thought that anything said in Cockney is screamingly funny?), but that, to be sure, only emphasizes the subtlety of Jimson. "Michaelangelo, Blake--you're one on them" is the epitaph that Nosy, Gully's disciple, suggests at the movie's end, but Jimson has always had a more realistic idea of his own worth, and he responds with
There are good words to be heard
And fine things to be seen
Before we reach Paradise
By way of Kendall Green.
Jimson is the Edwardians' secret dream of an unfetterd vie boehme come to life: he owns a houseboat, he hates the rich and noble to their Philistine faces, he is witty and irascible, he is irresistible to women. Also, as I have mentioned, he is a lousy painter, but the secret of Jimson's charm, the fact that allows us to let him get away with all his outrageousness, is that he never, or hardly ever, pretends that his work is much good. He is too much of an artist to try that.
And, as an artist, all his exploits have tremendous artistry. He paints a hideous mural of the raising of Lazurus in the flat of a vacationing patron, and finishes just in time to cover a large hole in the floor, his work, too, with several yards of Persian carpet before the millionaire returns from Jamaica, In a Marx Brothers movie the patron would (naturally) fall through the hole; in the world of Gully Jimson, the man, his wife, and his secretary stumble onto the rug and sink, majustically and inevitably, towards the floor beneath.
Jimson then organizes a community mural of the Last Judgment on the wall of a condemned chapel, and himself demolishes it with a bulldozer to spare the wreckers the ignominy, as he explains it, of "destroying a national monument." In the end, he cuts his houseboat adrift, and idles down the Thames dreaming of something even more spectacular perhaps on the side of a battleship.
Guinness brings to this role that Cary and Guinness have created for him a shuffling walk, a gravelly walk and a rusty charisma that is not to be resisted. No doubt you've all seen The Horse's Mouth, but that must have been almost three years ago. It is, at any rate, one movie to which I can unhesitatingly recommend a second visit.