Not as well known as it ought to be — perhaps because director Ronald Neame isn’t exactly a major figure in film history — The Horse’s Mouth (1958) is quite probably the best film ever made about a painter. For that matter, it’s certainly in the top 20 films made about any kind of artist, thanks in no small part to star Alec Guinness, who for the first and only time in his film career also wrote the screenplay, adapting it from Joyce Cary’s novel. The script is a fairly free version of the book, but one that captures the spirit and essence of the original in a way that may well be better than a more literal translation would have been.
Guinness plays Gulley Jimson, a singularly disreputable (and not very clean) painter with a penchant for making threatening phone calls to a former benefactor (played by the marvelous Ernest Thesiger of Bride of Frankenstein fame) — a character trait that often lands him in jail. Jimson has no money, but he has visions (largely fueled by William Blake’s writings) and the determination to see them brought to fruition at any cost — to himself or anyone in his sphere. Few films have ever gotten so completely into the mind of the artist as this one does. In between comic outrages, Jimson reveals little bits of himself. When he instructs his much put-upon friend Miss Coker (Kay Walsh) on how to look at a painting, or talks about seeing “a kind of colored music in the mind” on a blank canvas (or wall in this case), or bemoans his inability to get the vision he has down in paint, you realize the depth of the character.
Everything about the film works, from the performances to the direction to the beautiful use of Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije on the soundtrack. There’s a genuine sense of everyone involved being at his or her best, and in a stroke of genius, John Bratby (founder of the British “Kitchen Sink” school of painting) was brought in to create Jimson’s paintings. Bratby did more than that — he defined Jimson’s style, imbuing the film with a complete sense of the artist. The results are a revelatory gem of a film — and as Jimson himself notes, “Half a minute of revelation is worth a million years of no nothing,” countering the question, “Who lives a million years?” with, “A million people every twelve-month.” Think about it.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke