The Horse's Mouth (film)

The Horse's Mouth is a 1958 film directed by Ronald Neame and filmed in Technicolor. Alec Guinness wrote the screenplay from the 1944 novel The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary, and also played the lead role of Gulley Jimson, a London artist.

The Horse's Mouth
The Horse's Mouth US Theatrical Poster by Nicola Simbari
Directed byRonald Neame
Produced byJohn Bryan
Ronald Neame
Screenplay byAlec Guinness
Based onThe Horse's Mouth
1944 novel
by Joyce Cary
StarringAlec Guinness
Kay Walsh
Renée Houston
Mike Morgan
Robert Coote
Music byAdapted from Sergei Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kijé"
CinematographyArthur Ibbetson
Edited byAnne V. Coates
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors
Release date
11 November 1958
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$1 million (est. US/Canada rentals)[1]


Eccentric painter Gulley Jimson is released from a one-month jail sentence for telephone harassment of his sponsor, Mr Hickson. Nosey Barbon, who wants to be Jimson's protégé, greets Jimson at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, but Jimson tries to discourage Nosey from pursuing painting for a living. Jimson goes to his houseboat, which his older lady friend Coker has been maintaining in his absence.

Jimson tries to borrow money from Hickson and Coker. Jimson and Coker later visit Hickson to secure payment for Jimson's artwork. Jimson tries to steal works back from Hickson's place but Coker stops him. Hickson calls the police, but Jimson and Coker escape.

Jimson responds to a note from A. W. Alabaster, secretary to Sir William and Lady , who are interested in acquiring Jimson's early artworks. Jimson and Coker try to secure one of those works from Sara Monday, Jimson's ex-wife, but she turns them down.

When Jimson visits the Beeders, he sees a blank wall in their residence and is inspired to paint "The Raising of Lazarus". He learns that the Beeders are leaving for six weeks, and takes advantage of their absence to execute the painting. An old artistic rival, Abel, intrudes on Jimson to bring in a large block of marble to fulfil a sculpture commission for British Rail. Jimson pawns the Beeders' valuables, and Abel and Jimson accidentally destroy part of the Beeders' floor when the marble is dropped. After Jimson has completed the painting, the Beeders return. Shocked by the painting, they fall through the hole in the floor.

Jimson returns to his houseboat and finds Coker there. She was fired from her barmaid job after the press reported the incident at Hickson's residence. Later that evening, she surprises Jimson with the news that Hickson is dead and that he has bequeathed his collection of Jimson's works "to the nation". Those works are displayed at the Tate Gallery, which Jimson visits. In the long line to the exhibit, Jimson sees Sara. He again attempts to regain the piece in her possession, and she gives him a roll tube. When he returns to the houseboat, Coker and Nosey find that the roll contains only toilet paper. Nosey follows Jimson to Sara's house, where Sara is knocked unconscious when Jimson grabs the painting.

Jimson and Nosey seek shelter in an abandoned church. Jimson is immediately inspired to execute his largest work, "The Last Judgement", on a blank wall. Learning that the church is to be torn down within a fortnight, Jimson, Nosey and Coker recruit local youngsters to help complete the painting. A local council official overseeing the building's demolition objects to their activities. Jimson recruits Lady Beeder to participate. The painting is completed on the scheduled day of demolition. After the demolition crew warns everyone to stand back, Jimson suddenly drives a bulldozer through the wall, feeling it necessary to destroy the work before anyone else did. Jimson runs back to his boat and sets sail down the Thames before Nosey and Coker can stop him.


Alec GuinnessGulley Jimson
Kay WalshMiss D. Coker
Renée HoustonSara Monday
Mike MorganNosey
Robert CooteSir William Beeder
Arthur MacraeA.W. Alabaster
Veronica TurleighLady Beeder
Michael GoughAbel
Reginald BeckwithCapt. Jones
Ernest ThesigerHickson
Gillian VaughanLollie


The film featured an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by actor Alec Guinness. Guinness' screenplay generally follows the book it was based on, but Guinness focused on Jimson's character and what it means to be an artist, rather than the social and political themes the book explored. He also deviates from the book's ending, where Jimson had suffered a stroke and was no longer able to paint.

The expressionistic "Jimson" paintings featured in the film were actually the work of John Bratby, a member of the English provincial realist artists known as the Kitchen Sink school. To prepare for the film, Guinness observed Bratby at work in his home studio.[2]

Mike Morgan fell ill with meningitis shortly before filming ended and died before its completion. As a result, another actor dubbed many of Morgan's lines.[3]

Neame visited Joyce Cary as he was dying from bone cancer. Cary requested that his son Tristram be contracted to write the score for the film. Tristram had previously scored Guinness' The Ladykillers. So, Neame happily agreed to the request. Neame conveyed to Tristram that he had in mind "something jaunty and cocky" like Sergei Prokoviev's Lieutenant Kijé for the film's music.[2] Kenneth V. Jones did the actual arrangements of Prokofiev for the film.

Critical response

The film received rave reviews in the UK after its Royal Command Performance.[4] The film has been characterised as "one of the best films ever about a painter".[5] Scott Weinberg of the "Apollo Guide" described Guinness’ performance as "a devilishly enjoyable character study" that "ranges from 'mildly dishevelled’ to 'tragically exhausted’" and also praises Ronald Neame's direction.[6] Henry Goodman has written of the idea of the artist as destroyer with reference to this film.[7]

See also


  1. "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  2. Neame, Ronald, and Barbara Roisman Cooper. Straight from the Horse's Mouth, Volume 98 of Scarecrow Filmmakers Series. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. 160–1.
  3. Matthew Sweet (19 October 2003). "Ronald Neame (2003 interview at the National Film Theatre)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008. Retrieved 11 January 2008.
  4. "'Horse's Mouth' Wows Royal Film Gala". Variety. 4 February 1959. p. 3. Retrieved 4 July 2019 via
  5. Rotten, The Horse's Mouth (1958), Ken Hanke – Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)
  6. The Apollo Guide, "The Horses Mouth" review, by Scott Weinberg Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Goodman, Henry (Spring 1959). "Film Reviews: The Horse's Mouth". Film Quarterly. 12 (3): 44–46. JSTOR 3185983.
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