Lean with It

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09/11/2008 9:00 AM |

Starting tomorrow, September 12, and continuing through the 25th, Film Forum presents a centennial retrospective of David Lean, perhaps the quintessential British filmmaker. Everyone and their mother swears by Lawrence of Arabia (is the Film Forum ‘Scope screen even big enough for it?), but this most epic of filmmakers had a more varied, intimate career than Oscar telecast clip reels would have it. L film critic Cullen Gallagher explains.

The duality of David Lean’s cinema — intimate melodrama on the one hand and expansive epic on the other — is clear from his first film as a director. In Which We Serve (1942; pictured), co-directed by Lean and Noel Coward (who also acted as star, writer, producer, and composer), begins with a swift sea battle. Soon, however, the British ship sinks, and the crew is left adrift in the sea, sitting ducks for the circling German planes and their machine guns. An underwater close-up of a near-drowned sailor gives way to a flashback: first, to life aboard the ship before the war, and then to life at home with the wife and children. Structurally, this is how the rest of In Which We Serve progresses: shifting back and forth between the soldiers lost at sea and life back home. Considering its wartime context, there is the expected dose of patriotic hullabaloo, but what impresses most about the film is its reticent performances and unsentimental attention to the homefront. Lean and Coward’s unromanticized portrait of fleeting relationships between husbands, wives and children is remarkably sobering, and in marked contrast to the typical films at the time, which were prone to be mawkish and cloying. Celia Johnson’s Christmas dinner toast to the newlywed wife of a sailor is anything but celebratory — she speaks from personal experience of a husband who cares more for a ship than his wife, and of herself who has reluctantly learned to accept it. This — the staid dissatisfaction of middle-class marriage — will become the centerpiece of Lean’s best movies, and its embodiment will be Johnson herself.

Celia Johnson appeared in Lean’s next film (and first solo directorial effort) This Happy Breed (1944). Johnson is perfect as Lean’s middle-class muse, wide-eyed with dreams that would eventually be crushed by domestic disappointment. Ronald Neame’s creamy Technicolor photography elevates this story of "common people" to tragic heights: after his return from the first world war, a husband and his wife set down roots in a small town and start a family. Instead of the idealistic happiness of their dreams, the husband and wife become witnesses to their children’s disappointment, disaster, and even death. In This Happy Breed, the home becomes a landscape of human suffering, discontent, and uncertainty, all rendered through Lean’s exquisite direction and restrained performances of the cast.

Brief Encounter (1945), Johnson’s third and final film with Lean, is the director’s first masterpiece. Johnson’s portrayal of the conventional housewife who gives in to her amorous desires shows her deep capacity for emotion without resorting to sentimentality: like the best actors of the silent era, she could convey a lifetime of deflated desires in a single gaze, a single breath. A single line of dialogue, describing her train ride, sums up the disillusions of so many of Lean’s characters: "Then the palm trees changed into those pollarded willows just by the canal just before the level crossing, and all the silly dreams disappeared, and I got out at Ketchworth and gave up my ticket and walked home as usual, quite soberly and without wings." From Johnson’s housewife to Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, Lean’s characters are all dreamers — but not all of their dreams come true.

Between This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, Lean made his first of two forays into comedy. Blithe Spirit (1945), again based on a Noel Coward play, is a ghostly ménage-a-trois about a husband whose dead wife comes back to haunt him and, hopefully, to steal him away from his second wife. Under Neame’s skilled hand, Technicolor has never been more playful: the wife’s ghost is a luminescent green — halfway between Martian and gangrene — who wears trollop-y red lipstick. Lean’s other comedy, Hobson’s Choice (1954), is one of the treasures of Film Forum’s retrospective: available only on an imported DVD, it’s not to be missed on the big screen. Charles Laughton plays a rarebit fiend who spends more time in the pub than at his successful boot shop. Refusing to find a husband for his eldest daughter (she is, according to him, "30 and shelved"), the last thing he expects is for her to marry his prized boot-maker and start a rival business — which is precisely what she does. From cobblestone alleys to lopsided riverbanks, Jack Hildyard’s photography is stunningly evocative of 19th century England. The only word for Laughton’s performance is "gravity-defying" — just watch his drunken self first hesitate at the foot of the stairs, and then charge up miraculously without falling down.

Hildyard and Lean’s collaboration reached an apex with Lean’s Summertime (1955), the director’s underappreciated masterpiece. Katherine Hepburn plays a single woman who travels to Venice alone for a vacation, bringing along a bottle of whisky and a small movie camera. She spends the first half of the movie faking conversations with other tourists and visiting all the tourist hot spots, unable to make any sincere connection with other people or the landscape. Her alienation is unlike anything Lean had ever filmed before, and far more modern than anything to be found in Hollywood at the time — in fact, the closest relative to Hepburn’s character would have to be Marie Rivière in Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray/Summer (1986), some three decades later. A "brief encounter" with the already married Rosanno Brazzi quickly blooms into an inevitably short-lived, torrid romance. Summertime’s picturesque scenery parallels Hepburn and Brazzi’s idyllic relationship: at once ephemeral, overly romantic, and unrealistic. But more importantly, both are intended to provide memories for a lifetime; neither Venice nor the affair is meant to be everlasting.

Amorous affairs are also the center of The Passionate Friends (1949) — a movie in the same vein as Brief Encounter, in which Ann Todd (at the time Mrs. David Lean) plays a woman torn between her marriage-of-convenience to Claude Rains and a former lover (Trevor Howard, Johnson’s amorous partner in Encounter) — and Madeline (1950) — again starring Todd, who plays a wealthy woman accused of murdering her working-class lover. While Friends is an inspired melodrama, Madeline suffers from an extended, didactic trial in the second half, with too much new information presented to the audience-as-jury. Both films, however, continue to explore the morality of marriage, as well as the dynamics of conventional and romantic relationships.

Rounding out Film Forum’s series are the films for which Lean is most famous: his two Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations [1946] and Oliver Twist [1948]) and historical epics (Bridge on the River Kwai [1957], Lawrence of Arabia [1962], Doctor Zhivago [1965], Ryan’s Daughter [1970], and A Passage to India [1984], his final film). Twist, in particular, seems a shame to keep restricted to the dimensions of your television screen, considering its Wellesian camera theatrics (oblique camera angles and POV shots) and nightmarish, expressionistic photography. These films represent the other tendencies that Lean was exhibiting from the get-go in his first film, In Which We Serve — that is, an inclination towards the larger-than-life scenarios, and the personal stories of everyday people caught up in them. But whether filming the POW camps in Kwai or the newlyweds’ basement boot shop which doubles as their living room in Hobson’s Choice, Lean’s characteristic directorial skill is omnipresent throughout all his movies: an expert eye for detail, evocative use of sets, and singular compositions of natural landscapes. And while the grandiose may have gotten the better of him in Zhivago, the reticent intimacies of Brief Encounter, Summertime, and so many of his other early works, by far outweigh whatever excesses may mar his later films. Thankfully, with these ten newly restored prints, many of films that are unavailable on home video (or on badly preserved copies, such as with Blithe Spirit), we can now fairly examine Lean’s misrepresented body of work.