“The Horse’s Mouth,” directed by Ronald Neame in 1958, stars Alec Guinness as Gully Jimson, a pushy and determined artist who plays con games to achieve his artistic vision. The movie begins as Jimson leaves a prison after spending a month there for harassing a benefactor. Despite Jimson’s gross behavior, a young disciple and an old flame conspire with him retrieve a lost painting and restore his reputation in the art world.
Guinness is known for his voices, and he gives us a tour de force of his vocal antics in this movie. But I found Guinness’ normal Gulley Jimson voice to be gruff and annoying. We forgive artists for their despicable behavior because they live on that higher spiritual plane of creative genius, but Jimson is wildly eccentric and boorish. Guinness’ Jimson can’t be compared to the depictions of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in “Lust for Life” from 1956 because those characters — Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin — present their internal dialogue to the audience. They act like erratic artists but they don’t talk like ones. The story in Lust for Life invites us to understand them.
The novel of The Horse’s Mouth, written by Joyce Cary, explains Jimson’s behavior at the end, but Jimson just moves on to new adventures at the end of movie. I like the army of future artists that Jimson attracts in the movie. They pay for the privilege of painting the walls of a bombed out church as the police and demolition squad move in to upend their work.
The Technicolor production helps with the story. Since we can clearly see the colorful artistic mind of Gulley Jimson on canvas and walls, we receive a visual impression of his real artistry and sometimes forget about his base and loutish behavior. John Bratby, an excellent and influential English artist, painted the art works used in the film.