For more than half a century, Alec Guinness thrilled audiences with his powerful and unforgettable performances across film, television, and theatre. If ever there was a face of British cinema, then the actor would be it. He is celebrated as one of the most versatile actors to come out of the country. The man played a vast range of characters over the course of his dazzling career from horrifying to hilarious, enlightening, and endearing. Alec Guinness was the man who could do it all. No role was too complex or too foreign for him to take on and create magic with. His movies are cultural treasures, tours de force, and infinitely entertaining. While we believe he doesn’t have any bad acting credits, below is a list of 12 Alec Guinness movies and TV shows ranked from his best to his worst.
Alec Guinness Movies and TV Shows
1. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
Alec Guinness delivered an Oscar-worthy performance as a tough British Army Officer who waged a battle fraught with nerves and wits against a commandant of a Japanese prison camp. He beat other contenders to the Best Actor title at that year’s Academy Awards. The movie is full of suspense and peerless drama, elevated by the deeply moving performances of its stellar cast. Directed by David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai is considered to be one of the most gripping and powerful war films ever made as well as Guinness’ greatest movie appearance of his career.
2. THE LADYKILLERS (1955)
Although he played many serious roles in his career, Alec Guinness was a prolific comedy actor, and The Ladykillers is one of the movies where he truly displays the full extent of his hilarity. He plays Professor Marcus, the sleazy leader of a group of unprofessional bank robbers who pose as a musical group to keep from arousing their landlady’s suspicion. Despite their concocted plans, the band of criminals often find themselves over their heads. The entire cast is at their comedic best, but the brilliance of Alec Guinness still shines through. The Ladykillers is the kind of film you never forget which is why it is one of the best Alec Guinness movies you will ever see.
3. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1950)
One of the most celebrated Alec Guinness movies also happens to belong to his theatrical canon. The acclaimed actor plays eight different characters, all members of the noble D’Ascoyne family who are ingeniously murdered by a greedy relation who wants to inherit the family title and wealth. By killing all those set to inherit before him, he would remove every obstacle preventing him from achieving this goal. Each character he plays (old, young, man, woman) is quirky in their own unique way and adds a new layer of complexity and entertainment to the film. There are one too many iconic moments in the film that will never be forgotten.
4. THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951)
Guinness starred alongside Stanley Holloway as a bank clerk and his neighbor who set out with a plan to commit the perfect crime: stealing gold bullion, melting it down, reshaping it to look like a miniature Eiffel Tower, and smuggling it out of the country. The movie is fun and fast-paced and was a box office hit when it was released. Guinness’ stunning portrayal of the adorable, speech-impaired bank clerk is at once dull and irresistible. The film masterfully blends suspense and comedy to create a picture that is absolutely entertaining from start to finish. Alec Guinness earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor with this film although the award went to Gary Cooper for his performance in High Noon.
5. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Whenever Alec Guinness teams up with director David Lean, a perfect kind of madness is made. Lawrence of Arabia is hands down one of the greatest movies ever made. This spellbinding epic follows T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), a power-drunk English officer who manages to unite the Arabs to fight against the Turks in World War I. Guinness stars as one of the Arab leaders, Prince Faisal who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect his land and its people. Lawrence of Arabia was like nothing the movie industry had ever seen. It dominated the awards season, sweeping up seven Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Guinness nicked another Oscar nomination for his performance.
6. OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1960)
This unforgettable satirical comedy film is one of the very best Alec Guinness movies to ever hit the big screen. The actor plays an expat vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Revolutionary Cuba who agrees to work as a British spy in order to earn more money to support his family. His character begins making up secrets to pass along to his employers’ as correct information. It’s all harmless fun until people start ending up dead. Guinness intentionally downplays the whimsical nature of his role, evoking powerful responses from the rest of the ensemble cast including Ernie Kovacs, Maureen O’Hara, Burl Ives, and Noel Coward. There is a peerless scene in which Kovacs and Guinness play checkers with pieces made of mini bottles of whiskey, which many who have seen the movie agree is one of the greatest ever.
7. TUNES OF GLORY (1960)
The motion picture adaptable of the eponymous novel by James Kennaway tells the story of a career Army Major (Alec Guinness) in command of a regiment in post-World War II Scotland and a new Lt. Colonel (John Mills) who arrives to replace him. The battle of wills and wit that ensues makes this film absolutely magical. Guinness delivers his personal best performance as the alcoholic Major who is intent on making his superior’s life a living nightmare. His character goes from endearing to infuriating, cowardly, commanding, and fun-loving without missing a beat. Interestingly, Mills and Guinness were cast to play the opposite role, but they ended up switching and the rest is beautiful history.
8. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)
The acclaimed actor is revered amongst other things for his ability to convey a vast range of emotions without speaking. He is the master of the invisible, efficient in portraying deep, dark, secret thoughts. Alec Guinness brought all of this to his embodiment of George Smiley, a British Spymaster in this award-winning television series. The intelligence officer is forced into retirement then out of it when his skills are needed to fish out a mole in MI6 and put an end to the dealings of his communist rival once and for all. Despite the character’s somewhat still and stoic nature, Guinness manages to make him attention-grabbing and delightfully entertaining to watch. His performance won him a BAFTA award for Best Actor.
3. STAR WARS (1977)
Guinness played the original Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 classic by George Lucas. Since the force was first asked to be with us on the big screen, Star Wars has gone on to become one of the most popular movie franchises in history. The magnificent film follows a young boy named Luke Skywalker who is taught the way of the Jedi and teams up with an eccentric group of allies to faceoff with Darth Vader and rescue Princess Leia. It became an instant box office hit when it dropped, and the success of this original has spawned prequels, sequels, and money-spitting merchandise. Star Wars picked up 10 nominations at the Oscars including Best Picture, and it won six. The actor later stated that he considered this to be one of his most frustrating movie experiences.
10. SMILEY’S PEOPLE (1982)
Guinness reprises his role as the British Spymaster, George Smiley in this BBC television adaptation of the novel by John Le Carre. After one of his former assets, a Russian defector winds up dead, Smiley sets out to investigate the murder and tie up loose ends. Although it is one of his lesser-known performances, the television series remains one of his most captivating works.
11. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951)
This clever satirical comedy stars Guinness as an ambitious chemist who creates a fabric that never gets stained, never fades, and never wears out. This audacious invention at once catapults him to fame and puts him at odds with founders and stakeholders of the textile industry who realize that his wonder fabric would spell the end of their livelihoods. He soon finds himself running through the streets for his life as he is vehemently hunted down by the corporations. The movie is a brilliant satire about the industrial and economic corruption that has built brutal and unlivable capitalist systems. As far as Alec Guinness movies go, this is one of the actor’s subtlest performances.
12. THIRTY MINUTE THEATRE (1965-1973)
This BBC anthology drama series aired for eight years before going off the air. It featured breathtaking performances from all kinds of actors and actresses known. Each episode consists of a short play, and for many years it was one of the brightest shows on television. Alec was featured in episode 33 of season 4 titled Conversation at Night. He played the executioner.