Alec Guinness is one of classic cinema’s truly genuine curiosities. Blessed with a versatile demeanor that could agilely vacillate between comedy and tragedy even within the same production, his dramatic shrewdness is so wily and warm that watching each of his great roles feels like discovering his genius for the first time again. Guinness often grumbled that his actorly aplomb failed to project the sort of off-screen persona we anticipate from, or demand of, film celebrities. But rather being than a mere empty vessel to fill with the content of a part (as, say, Peter Sellers described himself), Guinness was to acting what Howard Hawks was to directing: Despite their hyper-sensitive approach to the niceties of a character or story, both eschewed “announcing” their artistry. Just as a fleeting swatch of lyrically germane mise-en-scène softly identifies the terrain of a Hawks, so subtle flourishes of pellucid self-awareness—from such diverse personalities as a senescent painter in The Horse’s Mouth or a mission-obsessed colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai—herald the zenith of Guinness’s histrionic game.
Take, for example, a morbidly comic scene in Last Holiday, where a young Guinness depicts lonesome everyman George Bird attempting to live out the last of a terminal prognosis in a stylish resort. Perfunctory conversation becomes too much to bear in the hotel’s den, and Bird flees to a darkened corridor where a waiter sounds an Arthur J. Rank-like gong and sonorously inquires, “Where can I put you?” The servant funereally refers to the guest’s placement in the dining room, of course, not a shady plot in the local cemetery, and admittedly it’s a cheap double entendre. Furthermore, the sepulcher shadows and claustrophobic framing are hardly subtle stabs at gallows—or in this case tomb—humor. The sardonic success of the sequence is entirely due to the exactitude of Guinness’s facial expressions, which manifest not only the lumpy arrangement of emotions (dismayed frustration is interrupted by feverish fear and manic misperception, which eventually dissolves in a restrained display of relief and embarrassment), but the delicately reflective transitions between them. This complex candor is how Bird, the archetypal noble peon, wins both our sympathy and our laughter: Rather than deriving comedy from distanced buffoonery, Guinness inspires us to imagine ourselves in his harried position. What we wind up laughing at is a cheerful identification of our own foolishness; after all, how many among us overreact in discomfiting situations without the additional burden of a looming death sentence?
The scenario above is additionally an adequate illustration of how Guinness and a consistently entertaining cast (most plucked from the Ealing Studios, where Guinness himself had one year previous portrayed all eight members of a dukedom dynasty in Kind Hearts and Coronets) redeem Last Holiday from a heavy-handed sense of the macabre and J.B. Priestley’s datedly droll topical commentary. The central dramatic premise of the film—a “last chance” at honesty and romance before kicking the proverbial bucket—seems particularly tailored to its lead actor’s understated intelligence and charming sobriety, but the post-war satirical specificity feels shallow and obtuse. Faced with the certainty of expiration, Bird stumbles into an allegorical wonderland where violinist beggars feign ocular dysfunction for the added pity, and the wealthiest of travelers turn out to be dead-broke money launderers. This is not at all incongruent with the themes of mortality: The film seems to be crustily insisting that unless Britain awakens with determination to its own mismanagement, the errors made in the haze following WWII will prove fatal. But the didactic lessons Priestley and director Henry Cass are set on delivering are simultaneously too esoteric and too glib.
How do we make sense of the detail that Bird is a salesman of agricultural machinery who just happens to encounter the inventor of his wares at the Regal Hotel? Or the fact that Bird then proceeds to enlighten the curious inventor with a detailed list of the product’s shortcomings? The film wants us to believe that Bird only matures into a go-getter when the assumed proximity of the grim reaper sharpens his perspective and forces him into fortuitous opportunities: However, even at the start of the story Guinness hardly portrays Bird as the sort of equivocating fink who would sell technology he knows for a fact is faulty. Yet Guinness’s commoner, freed from the constraining shackles of quotidian numbness, traverses social spheres like a virtual Christ-figure in the film, acting as a classy voice of reason to chambermaids (Kay Walsh excels as the sexily stern head housekeeper), chin-scratching heads of state, and intrepid card sharks (Sidney James plays an urban gambler intrigued by Bird’s apparent luck). And still Last Holiday insists on exposing universal hypocrisy, as the characters one by one “betray” Bird in the Ikiru-esque dénouement, colluding to renege on hastily made promises of high-profile positions in companies and administrations once the savvy traveler turns out not to be the mysteriously perspicacious man of the world that he appears.
But even with the groan-inducing caricatures (two frumpy elderly dowagers seem to have stepped out of a subpar Oscar Wilde staging) and intrusive death symbols (a maudlin silhouette of a syrupy violin player bookends the film), Last Holiday is a tour-de-force of nuanced, humanist-minded performance. Assuming a nearly editorial role, Guinness’s leadership intuits the script’s most worthwhile subtexts and slyly explores them—such as a telling emphasis on the “earthiness” of Bird through his given occupation in the agricultural industry and a self-deprecating comment about being as “common as dirt.” The socio-political significance of such content is so apparent that it’s impotent, yet Guinness insightfully reverses the resonance from Britain’s caste system back upon his doomed character. Originally thought a handicap, Bird’s grounded sensibility (in spite of his flighty name) becomes an asset amid the privileged classes who have never deigned to consider practical matters. And while the stately talent fails to promote Bird beyond his humble roots at the film’s dour ending, it does offer him the holiday of a lifetime: All his good ideas are given serious audience, and he attracts the vaguely erotic attention of both a hot hospitality manager and a rich damsel in distress. In this critic’s opinion, such a vacation would be worth dying for.