The Horse's Mouth
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Yawping from the depths of his gut, and seemingly creating his paintings from the same turbulent place, Alec Guinness' Gulley Jimson is a mangy-dog artist who paces around his canvases with rabid animal heat. His creations are monstrous things -- part Matisse color-orgy, part Picasso shape shifter. They dominate their viewers surely as Jimson, with his madman stare and guttural roar, intimidates his many admirers. The Horse's Mouth (1958) inhabits Jimson's painter-as-anarchist world with an outsider's eagerness. It wants to be messy, lice infested, and raucous like its protagonist; it wants to belch and scratch its butt in public; it wants to provoke the ire of those who've paid good money to see it. But like a socialite with bohemian aspirations, The Horse's Mouth is notable more for its enthusiasm than its authenticity. Gulley Jimson is a mangy dog, no question, but he's one you want to bring home and cuddle.

Restored and released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, The Horse's Mouth looks great, almost too great. The colors have the glow of fresh paint, thick and gooey. The musical score, adapted from Sergei Prokofieff's Lieutenant Kije, is clean and crisp. The film's director Ronald Neame participated in the clean-up and digital transfer, and the result is a movie that sparkles. But wouldn't Gulley Jimson have preferred something less polished? Surely he would have reviled the movie's fuzzy-wuzzy view of artistic penury. Just released from prison as the story begins, he wastes no time in heckling his exasperated patrons for money. He isn't successful -- they threaten to throw him back in jail if he continues -- but Jimson seems to thrive on this back-and-forth antagonism. He's drawn to those who want nothing to do with him, whether it's the wealthy Lord Hickson (Ernest Thesiger) who glares contemptuously at him but continues to buy his paintings or the wharf urchins who raid his houseboat and then flee in disgust when the owner returns (Jimson's reaction: "Don't run! Stay for lunch!")

Conversely shunning those who mean him well, Jimson abuses Nosy (Mike Morgan), his young protégé, and shrinks from the sight of Miss Coker (excellent Kay Walsh), his closest friend. His relationship with the latter, a cockneyed old-maid type, is the movie's most complex relationship, based on mutual insults and unacknowledged affection. When not hurling barbed harpy-isms at him, or his art, Miss Coker is busy collecting money on his behalf, hunting down deadbeats (including Jimson's ex-wife) and haranguing them with her eardrum-bursting shrieks. Lest you think her an incorrigible shrew, Walsh dips her character's veiled admissions of love ("I hope he drowns!") in extra-bitter poison, the better to conceal them. But they have no effect on Jimson. Sharing a rare quiet moment in front of his painting of a female nude, they say in their own way everything that can be said about their relationship. "Feel it with your eyes," he tells her, "the cools, the warms." She replies, "Well, her jugs look real, I'll give you that."

At rest, Gulley Jimson is a fascinating creation, alternately patient and restless, his own biggest obstacle to creativity and happiness. Whether among friends (from whom he flees) or foes (to whom he is fleeing), he is always itching for something else, and thus the movie lurches like a remote-controlled car from one episode to another with no discernible sense of direction. It's a conscious attempt to replicate Jimson's frantic state-of-mind, but it is also has the unintended effect of trivializing it. Director Neame plays much of the movie as pure physical slapstick, having Guinness adopt all sorts of bodily contortions and voices, the best being his warbly-throated imitation of an elderly English duchess. It's all expertly executed, and at times hilarious, but in asking us to laugh at Jimson and his predicaments, it reduces his life to little more than sunny picaresque. Look how roguish he is, the movie seems to say. Don't you wish you had someone like Gully Jimson in your life, to stir things up?

The movie gets serious only when Jimson is painting, and then it gets very serious, hovering over his shoulder like a dutiful assistant, observing his paint strokes with rapt fascination. In certain scenes, Guinness seems to wield his paintbrush like a scalpel, as if he were performing a delicate kind of surgery, reconstructing body parts with excruciating care. (The paintings are by real life artist John Bratby.) Jimson's primary fetish object is the human foot -- he loves its gnarled, muscular complexity -- and even employs a series of riff-raffs to model their goods. Jimson obsesses over his work, and his tends to be a love-hate relationship. This is nothing new; all movie painters seem to live in this anguished duality. Guinness takes it a step further in one crucial scene, possibly the movie's best, when having completed what he thinks is his masterpiece, he takes a step back and slowly realizes that the whole thing is wrong: "It's not what I meant… not the vision I had… why doesn't it fit like it does in my mind?" His crushing self-defeat is painful, agonizing, because for once Guinness isn't running around and shouting. It's a quiet crumpling up, a silent checkmate.

These inward moments -- immediately after a painting is finished, or right before it is started, at the moment of inspiration -- comprise the soul of The Horse's Mouth. "I like starting, but I don't like going on," Jimson confesses in one scene, and appropriately enough, the actual act of painting occupies very little screen time. Swept up in his own inspiration, Jimson envisions a series of Biblical murals including the Raising of Lazarus and the Final Judgment. The former he creates in the vacant penthouse of clueless patrons (Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh); the latter, he erects on the wall of a cathedral scheduled for demolition. That both are created by means of trespass is no accident. For Jimson, art must be a subversive activity, executed under the radar and off the books. But just as soon as he's given birth, he disowns his creations. He walks out on the Raising of Lazarus, and in the case of the Final Judgment, he destroys it, crushing it with a bulldozer.

An act of self-loathing? Or a kind of postpartum depression? Alec Guinness' screenplay (adapted from the Joyce Cary novel of the same name) offers no easy answers but it does suggest that artists live almost exclusively within that initial spark of inspiration. It's something they need to continually pursue, or perhaps subconsciously create for themselves -- nothing else matters. The fleeting moment is best exemplified when one of Jimson's sculptor friends (Michael Gough), having caused a marble slab to crash through the penthouse floor, exclaims, "It's all right! I can work down there!" Ronald Neame directs the scene with such a light hand that he's almost not there. His love for his actors is evident (he sings their praises in the brief video interview included in the DVD) and for much of the movie, it appears that he really has let the lunatics take over the asylum. In the liner notes, he relates an anecdote in which Alec Guinness, despondent and sullen, tells the director that "the actor, in the part of his mind that still wants to act, remains no older than fourteen… I need to be praised. I need to be patted on the back. I need to be told I'm good." Neame has apparently taken the sensitivity lesson to heart: The Horse's Mouth overflows with affection for its actors and for the artists they portray.

Inevitably, the movie's surfeit of goodwill stifles its own manic realism. As Gulley Jimson sails down the Thames on his houseboat, in search of a new life, a new idea, a new canvas, he eyes the hull of a barge and eureka, he's got it. What 'it' is doesn't seem to matter; we see Jimson performing a kind of mime, air-drawing his future masterpiece onto the ship's bare hull. From afar Nosy shouts, "Michaelangelo, Rembrandt … you're one of them!" The scene is earnest and even touching, but it ends the movie on a note of empty optimism. Cary's novel (unread by yours truly) ends with Jimson returning to prison. The down and out artist, having nowhere else to go, returns from whence he came to begin anew his creation/burnout cycle. The movie is decidedly less pessimistic, humanely rescuing its hero from artist hell, and carrying him off to artiste heaven.

Included on the DVD for no other reason than because it premiered alongside The Horse's Mouth at New York's Paris Theatre, D.A. Pennebaker's short film Daybreak Express (1958) is a jazz-inflected ode to the Big Apple's elevated train system. Though most of it has since been dismantled, the el still exists in the outer boroughs, and it's at these urban extremes that Pennebaker's camera finds its most compelling images: grimy brownstones speed past us, empty tracks rush towards us, and the far-off view of a spectral Manhattan tempts us. The score is by Duke Ellington, and Pennebaker has edited his reverie-inspired images to the jazz master's improv beats. The entire endeavor amounts to little more than razzle-dazzle, but an accompanying interview with Pennebaker himself provides a welcome glimpse into the famed documentarian's humble beginnings.

The Horse's Mouth is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes an interview with director Ronald Neame; D.A. Pennebaker's short documentary Film Daybreak Express; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price : $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.

The Horse's Mouth is also available (without the extras) on VHS from Home Vision Entertainment. Suggested retail price on VHS: $24.95. For more information, check out Home Vision Web site.