Alec Guinness is distinctive in his ability to combine the skills of character actor and realistic performance in the same role. Although he is identified with the school of acting which works from the outside in rather than from the inside out, accumulating external details rather than revealing inner truths, the virtuosity of his impersonations does not seem to damage the credibility of his characterisations. His Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948), though physically a caricature, is emotionally a character of some depth. In the Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he plays all eight of the doomed d'Ascoynes, gives full scope to his playful virtuosity, while The Man in the White Suit (1951) gives him a role of appealing but dangerous innocence.
Guinness won an Oscar, a New York Film Critics award and a British Academy award for his performance as the insanely uncompromising Captain Nicholson in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a theme on which he played variations in Tunes of Glory (1960). Since the 1960s, his performances have been a little more predictable, though his role as Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars series almost stole the movies from the action men. His most satisfying and complete characterisation in recent years was as George Smiley in the BBC television serialisations of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982). Knighted in 1959, he was given a Special Academy Award in 1979 for 'advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances'.